Madurai, India, 2009. Photo by Monica Byrne.
I come back balancing three paper cups full of chai. Bella and Chloe are lounging on the train platform, wearing their heart-shaped sunglasses, watching ropes of rain slither off the edge of the roof.
I met them three days ago, in Kochi. We’ve shared one hotel room, ten meals, and two autorickshaw rides. But here we part. They’re going to the tourist town on the coast—Varkala, on the Arabian Sea. They tell me about rippling cliffs, smooth beaches, and cafés that serve sweet iced mochas. But I’m not going with them. I’m going inland, to Madurai, to see the goddess.
Chloe notices me. “Chai! Wonderful.”
Bella says something in my direction.
“What?” I say.
Bella raises her voice, to be heard over the drumming of rain. “WE’LL MISS YOU.”
Chloe nods to herself, as if to say, I suppose that’s not unlikely.
I can’t see their eyes behind their sunglasses. “But you’re going to have such a great time at the beach,” I say, trying to be heard over the rain, trying to sound like I mean it.
Chloe nods more vigorously, as if to say, That’s for certain.
“So,” says Bella in the same raised voice, “where is Mad—Mudd—”
“Madurai,” I say.
“Ma-DOO-rye!” says Bella.
“Ma-DOO-rye!” says Chloe. They become a chorus of overlapping Ryes and Doohs and Maahs, then stop and blow on their chai.
“It’s deep inland,” I say, “in the middle of Tamil Nadu.”
“What’s there?” says Bella.
The question catches me off guard. Like I have to defend Madurai, even though I’ve never been there. Anyways I can’t explain this call I feel—to the center of a country, not to its edges.
“A big temple complex,” I say. “To the goddess Meenak—”
“What?” says Bella.
“MEENAKSHI,” I say, annoyed, having to bray her name like a donkey.
I page through my travel guide, find a picture. “A Hindu goddess, a warrior woman. Madurai is her place,” I say, pointing. “She has three breasts and fish eyes.”
“Fish eyes? Like from the ocean kinda fish?”
“Then why is she hundreds of miles inland?”
I shrug and close the book. I don’t want to answer their questions. I don’t want to tell them why I want to see the goddess and what I seek from her—some feeling of actuality I suspect I’ve never had before. I can’t wait to be alone, away from them. I’m not like them. All they want is leisure, pleasure, and fun in the sun.
“Your train!” says Bella, leaping from the bench.
I swallow the last of my chai and crumple the cup and cast it on the track. The platform is alive now. All the families are stirring, aunts, sisters, mothers, grandmothers. Books shut, bags hoisted, children grabbed away from the track.
I have four items of luggage. I sling them around my body in their most energy-efficient configuration, which prevents Bella and Chloe from hugging me.
“Well, I just want to say—we should write postcards—”
Bella shakes her head. “Sorry, what?”
I raise my voice. “I said it was nice to meet you both—”
Bella draws back and stares at Chloe, and they exchange a look of confusion behind their sunglass panes.
People are getting on the train. I can’t waste time.
“Bye!” I say, holding up my arm in what I hope is a universal gesture.
It works. Bella and Chloe each hold up an arm cocked at a right angle, two pharaohs in a gesture of farewell or warning, depending on whether you were going or coming.
I have a window seat reserved in a sleeper train. I’m the first one here. I push my luggage under my seat, peel off my sandals, and sit cross-legged as I shuttle my phone up through my clothing and scroll to my chosen playlist: “Night Train to Madurai.” Lots of Joni Mitchell. I’ve planned for this.
A little girl comes into the compartment, alone. I smile at her. She’s dressed in cotton salwar kameez of blue paisley. She sits down and leans her head back on the wall and stares at me, seeming to gather nerve. Then she looks away and closes her eyes as if concentrating. When she opens them, she turns back to me and speaks.
“What is your name?” she says. The four notes make a melody.
I take one earbud out. “Wendy,” I say.
“Are you from the U.S.A.?”
“Yes,” I say, “California.”
“What is your hair?”
I’m used to being stared at because of my hair. It’s ketchup-red, just like the pigtails of the burger chain girl. “It’s red.”
“You live like this?”
I smile. “Yes.”
Her head drops back and she looks away again. She’s gathering her English in her head, gathering up the words and staggering under them like too many parcels.
“May I have pen?”
“No,” I say. Why do people have to corrupt these innocent exchanges. Why couldn’t we just get to know one another without a turn to begging.
“Why?” she asks, mystified.
“You shouldn’t ask Americans for things,” I say. “It breeds dependency.”
She gives me a look to say, well la-di-da.
“What’s your name?” I say, trying to change the subject.
But she’s already lost interest in me. She’s gazing down the aisle at something I can’t see. She swings her legs forward and hops down to disappear down the car.
At the same moment, a young woman appears from the other side. She consults her paper ticket, unshoulders her purse, and sits down at a diagonal from me. She might be my age. She’s wearing a sari of aquamarine, in a shade I’ve never seen, even in all the seas of saris one sees in India. She doesn’t meet my eyes, though I keep trying to meet hers.
In my guidebook, by a fluke of the layout, Madurai and Varkala are in adjacent sections. I flip from pictures of one to pictures of the other. The city of Madurai is bone-white. The ocean at Varkala is thunderstorm-blue.
Surely, by now, Bella and Chloe have caught their train. Maybe they’re already wheeling on the beach between curtains of rain, content with the usual tourist fare.
Joni Mitchell says, Fly silly seabird—no dreams can possess you.
I curl up tighter and stare out the window.
The train weaves through Kerala, into Tamil Nadu, ever deeper inland. Crowds are gathered at every road crossing. Hosts in white, on motorbikes, gunning their engines. We pass into the suburbs and houses are colored pink and tangerine. We pass into farmland where coconut palms chart the paddies. We stop many times. At the end of each platform, a green light glows, signaling Go.
I check my compass. We’re going east, but the disc swings to indicate north. I shake it, level it. The disc swings again, but now settles on west. I roll my eyes and drop it.
I flinch when an object appears very close to me. It’s a paper cone, held by the young woman across from me. I hadn’t even seen her get up.
“Bhelpuri,” she says. She has her own cone, in her other hand.
“Oh, wow! Thank you,” I say. “That’s very nice of you.”
She gives me a tight smile, sits, and tosses the contents of her cone to mix the rice krispies, onion, tomato, sour mango, cilantro, and lemon juice.
“Are you going to Madurai too?” I say.
She looks up. “Madurai, yes,” she says. But she says it quickly, like M’dh’rai, like a shiver, in contrast to my long belabored syllables. I blush. I want to be like her, blending in, disappearing.
“You should be going to the beaches at Varkala or Goa,” she says. “You fit in better there. Why are you going inland?”
Again, I feel defensive. Why does anyone go anywhere?
“To see the goddess.”
I get excited. “Yes,” I say. “I’m going to spend all of Friday at the temple complex. My guidebook says the priests unite Meenakshi with Shiva every night.”
“They’re husband and wife,” she says. “They consummate their marriage.”
“I want to see it.”
“No one sees it.”
“Then maybe I could just see the procession.”
“You won’t be allowed.”
I didn’t expect this. “Not allowed?”
“No. You’re not Hindu. There’s a big sign in the temple.”
“I might be Hindu.”
“You are definitely not Hindu.”
“How do you know?”
She smiles at me, but it’s not a nice smile. It’s a smile of sufferance. I’m paranoid that she can see what I am: raised in no religion, except for the occasional Christmas service with my stepfather, green and red and gold garlands at the edge of my memory.
She changes the subject. “There are other things you can see, other goddesses even. There are idols of Parvati there. Meenakshi is an aspect of Parvati.”
“I knew you weren’t Hindu.”
“Well, what does it mean?”
“Aspect means an incarnation. Every goddess has many incarnations, generous and mischievous, creators and destroyers. So if you only see Parvati, and tell Parvati of your desire to see Meenakshi, Meenakshi will know you tried and she will bless you. Be content! Don’t try to see what you are not allowed to see.”
“What will happen if I do?”
She picked a pebble out of her cone and threw it out the window. Her voice was dull and colorless. “Then the goddess will be sure to reward you.”
I purse my lips and look out the window.
The train stops in a mid-sized town. All the signs are in Tamil, now; my few words of Malayalam are useless within a few hours’ ride. Chai-wallahs stroll up and down the aisle, balancing towers of paper cups on canteens, calling chai chaia chai chaia chai chaia chai.
An elderly woman arrives in our compartment. She carries a sack close to her body, as if it were precious, and wears an elegant sari of silver and navy. She’s alone. She says something to the young woman in turquoise, and the young woman answers, pulling at the other woman’s sari, rubbing the fabric between her fingers. They talk for awhile and laugh, resting their hands one atop the other. Do they know each other? Are they family? How easy for them to relate, to create intimacy, because they speak the same language, know all the same references, two birds in the same air. And here I am, a fish trying to fly.
Avoiding my eyes, the old woman takes a seat beside the young woman and folds her hands in her lap and gazes ahead. The train clenches, and we slide forward, gathering speed. We pass into open land now. I can see the moon rising over undulating hills, gibbous, heavy-lidded.
By the time I look back, the young woman and the old woman have fallen asleep together, heads templed.
Joni Mitchell sings, Oh California, I’m comin home.
I wake from a doze.
My contacts feel like potato chips. I blink to re-lubricate and they settle back into place.
It’s evening now. The moon has risen farther up in the sky and glows white. We’ve stopped. I cup my hands around my eyes and look out the window to see a small concrete platform lapped by colorless weeds. In the center of the platform is a kiosk, where a slope-bellied man is peering down at the levers. He looks like he just came in from the fields. He picks up a radio and talks into it.
Meanwhile, a skinny figure has let herself down from the train and is shuffling down the platform. It’s the old woman from my compartment. She reaches the end of the platform and puts down her sack and draws out of it a black block of metal with a glittering glass lens. She holds it in her left hand, at waist-level, and turns a switch. The lens bursts into brilliant cerulean blue. Why not green, I wonder? What does the color blue mean here?
I turn to look at the young woman to ask her, but she’s nowhere to be seen. In her place is the little girl.
“Hello again,” I say. “Are you alone?”
She stares up at me with big eyes. “No,” she says. “I have Meenakshi.”
I’m confused. I don’t know if she’s talking about a human or the goddess. Maybe this is some divine orphan. “Is that a family member?”
The little girl cocks her head as if to consider the question, then shakes her head ‘yes.’
“Where did she go?”
The little girl shrugs. “Toilet? Or kappi.”
Not goddess, then. I feel happy I recognize the Tamil word for coffee. “Or maybe kappi, then toilet,” I joke.
The little girl giggles. I feel good that I’ve made her giggle. She’s not asking me for pens this time. I’m making progress.
“Well, we’ll all wake up in Madurai together, right?”
She nods but avoids my eyes, shy again. I turn back to the platform. I fantasize about the young woman insisting that, instead of me going to my hotel upon our arrival in Madurai, I come with her to her home, where there’s a corner to sleep and idlee and cartoons with the children in the morning. Not another aseptic hotel room, but a warm home.
A hiss of pressure, and the train begins to move. We slide toward the faithful old woman in the sweltering dark. The cerulean light swells in our window, and then she’s swallowed back by the night.
I check my watch. It’s nearly ten. We’ll arrive in Madurai early—5:00am—so it’s time for bed. First I go to the bathroom marked Western Style and grab my ankles over the toilet seat, breathing through my scarf.
When I come back, the little girl is sitting by the window, cradling the young woman’s head in her lap. Where are all these women going and coming back from? Is this part of the mystery of being called inland? Bella and Chloe won’t be seeing this on the beach at Varkala. They’ll only be seeing other white tourists.
I look out the window. We’re curling around the base of a mountain, now, and the throat of the train bawls into the darkness.
I pull down the window blinders and switch off the light and lie on my side. The train sways and rocks us to sleep.
My body can tell when the train is still.
I wake up and wait. I blink in the darkness, seeing forms coalesce and pass and dissipate.
Only when we start moving again can I fall back asleep.
Another kind of sound intrudes.
A voice is repeating something. It’s trying to tell me something. I’m surfacing.
The train is still. Light floods the car. I blink and sit up, wiping yellow crystals out of my tear ducts.
My car is empty. The young woman and the little girl are gone. So is everyone else.
I hear commotion outside. I struggle with the metal blinds and finally wrestle them up. I see thongs slapping the concrete at eye level. Finally I can hear what the voice is saying: Madurai. Madurai. Madurai.
I check my watch. It’s only 3:05am. I feel so annoyed. Why is the train two hours early? I plan for things to happen the way I’m told they’re going to happen and now they’re happening differently. I move as quickly as I can, hating everything. I pull out my four pieces of luggage and sling them around my body in walking configuration. I maneuver myself out of the car and down the aisle. I’m the last one to leave the train.
I follow the last dregs of the crowd. Down the platform.
Up a stairway. Over an overpass. Down a stairway.
I come with the flood pouring out of the station gates, and leggy men bend into my path like river reeds. Madam? Taxi? Madam? Rickshaw? I plow through, ignore them, trying to look like I know where I’m going. I have to keep it up until they leave me alone. But they’re not easily dissuaded, not at this hour. They follow me. Where you go, madam? We can take you. Sure they will. And charge me an arm and a leg for it. I try to walk faster. They start jogging alongside me like Manchester United in training. I ignore them, still. One of them with a curled forelock and a half-smile says, “Why are you in Madurai, madam?”
I stop and snap, “To see the goddess!”
He recoils with a look of hilarity. He calls to his fellows, and a laugh arises among them, and they jog away together, fingers raised in victory.
I’m glad I could provide their evening entertainment. I plunge down a side street, fists clenched. I have to find my hotel and I want it to be safe and clean. I’m owed that much. My stay in Madurai is beginning inauspiciously. Winged insects wheel and collide near the glowing orange bulbs overhead. I stride under them. I have no pity for other living creatures at 3am in the heart of the Indian subcontinent when I don’t yet have a bed to sleep in. I think of the young woman and the little girl, whoever they were, now settling into the city with the rest of the train’s harvest, sinking into their warm families and delicious beds.
Finally I see my hotel, Meenakshi Paradise, with blue paint peeling from the sign. How strange that gods are embedded everywhere here, shamelessly, in worship and commerce alike.
I walk into the lobby. It looks like a used car dealership. A bleary-eyed man looks up at me from behind the counter. He is joined by another, rising from some task below. A third rouses himself from a nap on the bench and joins the other two. Three aspects of the god.
“Can we help you, madam?”
“Yes. I have a reservation.”
Three sets of eyes follow the middle one’s finger as he draws it along the register.
“Wendy Finley!” says the middle one, raising his eyes again as if seeing me for the first time.
He flings his arm toward the elevator. “Come! I will show you to your room.”
I appreciate his enthusiasm, but feel too dazed to return it. We crowd into the elevator: he, and then me, with my four lobes of luggage. After the door closes and the elevator begins to slide up he meets my eyes in the mirror and says, “How old?”
“Canada.” I’ve lied, just to mix it up. I’m so tired.
“Canada!” he announces. “Caaa-naaa-daaa!”
I don’t laugh. All my dreams are clogging my brainstem. I need to sleep.
The elevator stops and the doors slide open and I follow him down an open-air corridor tiled in warping linoleum. The warm night air flows in and sloshes over us. He unlocks #612 and turns on every light in the room. The room is egg-white. Every surface is bald and bare—tile, curtain, bedsheet, wall.
“Fan,” he says, plugging it in to demonstrate its functionality.
I nod. I want to be alone.
He leaves me. With an understanding that the room is fine and I’ll pay in the morning and I must sleep, must melt into my bed and not move, because the ache for sleep is universal and anyone, anywhere, knows how it feels.
I wake, dry and chilled.
My bed has no sheet.
I plunge my hand into my bag that is next to my bed and root around and pull out my scarf, which I arrange over my body, and curl up under it, to entomb myself for further sleep.
I dream of Bella and Chloe. They’re dozing, lying in the surf, letting their bodies rise and fall, letting the foam pop on their skin, content with what India has given them. They’re wondering why I insisted on going inland, alone; instead of with them, to the sea.
I tell them: I don’t want to go the places I’m expected to go. I want to see real India.
What is real India?
The goddess will show me.
I feel a tap on my shoulder. It’s the little girl from the train, holding out her open palm.
I wake to bhangra.
It’s playing at maximum volume right next to my ear.
I know what it is. It’s a couple next door. Yes. They are doing their morning dance routine. I know this for a certainty. I thrash up and pound on the wall with the heel of my palm. But there is no response and the music doesn’t stop. No, then it can’t be real. I must have dreamed it. The music is still there. I throw my scarf off my body, looking for the source. I look under my bed and all my blood rushes to my head. I get up and look out the windows but, no, it’s coming from inside my room.
There’s a dial embedded in a panel set in the wall above my bedside table. I turn the dial to the right. The music gets unbearably loud and my heart jumps up into my brain. I turn the dial the other way and the music disappears, back down the black hole it came from.
I stop, breathing in the silence, the music still echoing in my ears. A horsefly buzzes against my screen.
I turn over and press a pillow over my head and wonder why I’ve come.
I sleep very late and eat a mid-afternoon lunch.
I feel like a sane and reasonable human being again.
I tell myself that the unpleasant night doesn’t have to be definitive of my experience of Madurai. It was a transient weirdness: the early arrival, the lack of sleep, the lack of bedsheet, the odd dreams, the dry throat, the loud music. It’s over now. It’s dusk and I’m fresh for the goddess. I walk down the street, sipping rose milk through a straw. All streets lead to the temple. Its four horned towers rear above the city like talons.
Families are on pilgrimage. I see sisters and daughters and aunts and mothers. They stroll along the boulevards that hem the temple, their arms laden with shopping bags, full of fabric and sweets and little Shivas. They pass me as though I’m invisible. Maybe I am.
I stop at the front of Meenakshi’s temple. One of its tower soars above me, every inch covered in rainbow scrollwork. I take off my shoes and entrust them to the street, as hundreds of others have done. I peer in through the gate, and even from here, I can see that there’s a whole world inside, with its own cities and towns, pools and rivers, realms and climates.
Now everything is going how I want it to go.
A hand slaps me on the back of my leg. I turn around and look down to see a boy, his head bound with rags, his feet missing, holding out his hand. I stare at him, incredulous. He hits my leg again and holds out his hand, as if I’m stupid, as if I don’t understand. But I understand. I know these children are maimed by their pimps and sent out to beg. I don’t want to play that game. I shake my head ‘no, sorry,’ and turn and step across the threshold.
The bazaar surrounds me. The ceiling glitters. The flagstones are slippery with orange petals. Carved horses leap out of the walls. Gods stand in their shrines, each one smeared with crimson cream and mustard powder.
The sound of horns comes from far away, from deep within the temple. It sounds like a New Orleans funeral. I feel sure the goddess is calling me. I follow the sound past the great pool, into the passageways beneath the next tower. I’ve entered a new realm with a new climate. What did I expect? Nothing like this vastness. Coming inland means believing that the world is always bigger than you think.
I continue to follow the horns, taking a new hallway that leads down into yet another hallway. The sound gets louder. There’s always another corner to turn. The horns are overlaid by a percussion made from thousands of tools: men lie on their backs with brushes and chisels in hand. Their eyes glint from within tunnels, then turn back to work. This world is constantly under construction. They’re burrowing ever deeper inwards, making new worlds.
One of the workmen is lying on his side, repainting the fingernails of a god. He turns to me with his cheek on his hand, rolling over like a lover in bed, and meets my eyes. His eyelashes are thick and black and he’s wondering why I’m here.
A horn bawls out right behind me and I break eye contact. I press myself against a pillar as the puja passes: a parade of bare-chested priests, bearing a thick silver pole on their shoulders, in turn bearing a carven silver palaquin, and a silken banner fluttering over the darkness within. It’s Shiva. The bridegroom is coming. They accompany him with bells and torches. They’re bringing him to Meenakshi’s chambers.
You probably won’t be allowed, said the young woman on the train.
I have to try. I came here to see the goddess.
I follow men in white shirts, their backs crossed with satchel straps, and the women with long braids, tied with white blossoms.
We follow Shiva under a rainbow ceiling: pink, green, yellow, blue. The deeper we go, the bigger it is. We’re all shuffling, heads down, intent. It’s as if I’ve only been at the edges of the galaxy before, and now, I’m headed to the core. Bells ring, alerting the bride. We’re coming. I see flames ascending ahead. The crowd is getting thicker. A woman stumbles into me from behind, and I stumble into the man in front of me. Neither apologizes or even looks. They’re used to the crush of intimate strangers. We pass through a cloud of incense. The passageway narrows. I have no sense of where we are in the temple. I’m very far away from where I began. We pass through more clouds of incense, thick and sweet. I look up and see the haze of white neon lights. A drone is added to the music, a steady thread that draws us on. I can’t tell where any of it is coming from. My body is held up by other bodies, on all sides, as we press forward. I can see, through the elbows and shoulders and necks, the men holding Shiva’s litter over a mandala, and a spry old priest, his lower half swathed in tiers of white fabric edged in green and red and gold, and ropes of white blossoms draped in circles on a silver urn, and flames ascending and descending. The trumpet brays, the drums beat. The crowd presses forward. Is it almost time to see the goddess Meenakshi? Is it almost time for the consummation? It must be. I press forward with them. Everyone seems to understand what’s happening. Everyone here shares the same language, birds of a flock, turning this way and that on columns of air. I long to know. I long to make sense of all the things I’m seeing and hearing and feeling. I long to be soothed. Is this what Shiva himself needs from Meenakshi? To be set at ease? Then I’m the bridegroom as well, goddess. I want to know you. Petals fall from the ceiling. I want to know myself. I press forward to see the consummation. I want to erase my life and start over. I want to have been born here.
I push forward even as the crowd pushes me forward.
The horns blare in my ears.
The flames are in my eyes.
My lungs fill with smoke.
I cough and blink and tears stream down my cheeks. We are so close, pressing forward, pushing to make it happen.
The crowd parts.
A little girl appears before me with her palm outstretched and says, “Pen?”
How can she be here. How can she be asking me for a pen, now. How can she profane this moment.
I push past her, and the crowd pushes me past her. We’re so close to the goddess.
The crowd parts again and a little girl holds out her palm. “Pen?”
I can’t believe this. Why is she only asking me? Everyone else ignores her, so I ignore her. I push past her, and the crowd pushes me past her. I can see it: Shiva is approaching the threshold. He and Meenakshi are nearly together now. We’re all shuffling, bodies pressed, crushing forward into the smoke. We’ve left the little girl behind. She’s finally left me alone this time.
A man stumbles into me from behind, which sends me stumbling into a woman’s back. Her sari is silken peacock blue. My nose grates along the golden embroidery, skinning it. Drums are in my ears and smoke is in my lungs. We’ve come to the center of the world, the core of the galaxy, and we’re all like clay, bent beyond our natural shapes, pulled across time and space, a man on my back and a woman in my groin. I want to know the truth. I want to know myself.
The wave finally releases me and I pop out of the surf.
I’m coughing. I swallowed some water. But once I’ve gotten it all out, I take a deep breath and wipe my eyes. The tip of my nose burns; I skinned it on the sand.
A cute blonde boy nearby asks me if I’m all right. I think he’s English. His wrist is attached to his board by a long plastic tether.
“Fine, thanks,” I call. “That wave was just bigger than I thought.”
He gives me the thumbs up. Maybe I’ll find him later for mocha lattés at the hostel.
My toes find the sand and I stand upright, suddenly tall. The water is surprisingly shallow. It’s easy to walk up onto the beach, up to my towel. Indian men stare at me as they pass. They always stare at me because of my hair. I turn to face the water and snuggle down into my towel, feeling the sun beat down on my skin, watching the spindles roll in from the Arabian Sea. The midday light is so bright. I dig out my heart-shaped sunglasses and gaze west. I feel perfectly at ease.
Oh California, I’m comin home.
Halbert W. Hall Speaker’s Series on Science Fiction and Fantasy
February 2, 2018, Texas A&M University
Photo by Alyssa Denson for The Battalion
Thank you so much to Texas A&M for hosting me, and especially to the Science Fiction Archivist, Jeremy Brett, who invited me and orchestrated everything. He’s been a supporter of my work for years, and I’m so delighted to finally meet him, and to have the chance to address all of you. I’d also like to thank TAMU Libraries, the Glasscock Center for Humanities Research and its Science Fiction Studies Working Group, the Department of English, the Department of International Studies, and the Department of Visualization. I’m so honored by such an intersectional effort to bring me here. So thank you.
As Jeremy said, I write a lot of things, but when people ask me what I am, the first thing I say is that I’m a science fiction writer. I gave Jeremy a name for this talk before I wrote any of it, because I was still finishing my next novel. It’s called The Actual Star. It’s taken me six years to write. My agent is reading it as we speak. It jumps back and forth from the distant past, during the collapse of ancient Maya civilization; to the present, specifically the year 2012; to the far future, when a new global religion has brought lasting peace to humankind. So I spent a lot of the past year in the year 3012, in my head, imagining what the world will look like a thousand years from now. I want to talk to you about it because, like all science fiction, even though it’s set in the future, it’s a response to our present moment. My talk is called “Instructions for the Age of Emergency,” which is the time period we’re living in right now. In the far future, there are entire fields of study devoted to it, and to the people who lived in it, and what we must have been thinking.
During the last year, I locked myself out of social media for months at a time. I had to concentrate on work and, to be honest, protect my mental health after the election. I only read The Washington Post on my phone in bed in the morning—I still do—and that was enough. Everything I read, I asked myself, “How did we get here? What are the root causes? How can things be different?” And then I would try to answer those questions in the day’s writing.
The possibility I wanted to explore is that things didn’t start going astray after 9/11, or because of Nixon, or with the Industrial Revolution, or even with the invention of race that enabled the Native American genocide and the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. I wanted to explore the possibility that humanity lost its way in the Neolithic Era. We regard the Neolithic as the beginning of history, and if we mean written history, maybe. But humans lived for two hundred thousand years before that—before the fall of Troy, before permanent settlements, before the invention of surplus and property and money and agriculture. All of that is only about twelve thousand years old, or, 6% of our history. The fact that we don’t have newspapers from the other 94% of our history doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. It also doesn’t make it any less important when thinking about the range of human possibility, and the range of possible human futures.
Much of science fiction deals with imagining dystopia. I’ll talk about why that is later, but I strongly believe that, at this moment in time, we need to remember that one of the highest callings of science fiction is imagining utopia. I don’t mean starry-eyed visions of a fairyland that drops out of the sky. I also don’t mean a static society built on some fundamental irony like panopticon or the suppression of free will. I mean honest, earnest engagement with the question of what a better world looks like.
In the Earthseed trilogy, Octavia Butler’s characters go through hell in their struggle to establish a utopian community. In the Mars trilogy, Kim Stanley Robinson’s characters go through several revolutions and constitutions in building a better world than the one they came from (Earth). Ursula K. Le Guin—who died while I was composing this talk—is the leader of us all in this regard. Her work engages the idea of realistic utopia over and over again—through Hain, Anarres, Gethen, Earthsea, and of course, Omelas.
My novel The Actual Star is an attempt to work in that same tradition. The distant past—the collapse of Maya civilization—takes place amid the failure of monarchy. The present—our age, the “Age of Emergency”—takes place amid the failure of capitalism. So, what does the year 3012 look like? I’ll first describe it, and then describe how I got there, extrapolating from this moment in time.
In 3012, the world operates by the twin philosophy of accumulation and dispersion. Put as simply as possible, The Law of Accumulation states that accumulation of any human property ultimately leads to human suffering. For example, accumulation of capital leads to inequality. Accumulation of family ties leads to feuds. Accumulation of feuds leads to war. Accumulation of population leads to disease. Accumulation of territory and power leads to war. Not necessarily at first, or even for centuries—but eventually, always.
The antidote is the Law of Dispersion. Put as simply as possible, it states that lasting peace can only result from the constant temporal and spatial dispersion of all human properties. In other words, we build a society that flows with, not against, the entropic nature of the universe.
In 3012, there are no borders. There are no nations. There are no families, aside from the human family. We call every other person “carnala,” a Mexican Spanish term meaning “a blood relation.” The average life expectancy is 130 years. The world population is steady at one billion. We roam the earth as permanent nomads, and, by common agreement, only own as much as we can carry—this is why the system is called Laviaja, a feminized form of “El Viaje,” Spanish for “the journey.” Those of us who cannot move or walk are accommodated so radically by mutual aid, artificial intelligence, and augmented reality that the very concept of disability no longer exists. In fact, many of us choose to have what we think of as disabilities, and call them “gifts,” because they are ways of creating community.
We eat primarily by foraging, a practice now aided by advanced artificial intelligence and augmented reality. No one eats animals, since we began learning their languages. Where there isn’t much to be foraged, our photosynthetic skin takes over. When we want home-cooked food, we go to a wayhouse. Wayhouses are places where we can rest for up to a period of nine days, in exchange for a few hours of work a day. We gather for two daily meals plus, in many areas of the world, teatime. Agribots—farming robots—do the majority of farming and gardening, strictly on a subsistence basis, near wayhouses. In other words, no one goes hungry. Food security is simply not an issue. This is because, at a certain point, around the 23rd century, all technology was built to serve humankind, not profit.
None of us stay in the same place for more than nine days. None of us even stay with the same people for more than nine days. But whomever we lose, we regain. With whomever we meet on the road, we fall into any number of familiar roles—sister and sister, lover and lover, mother and child, aunt and niece, elder and youth—and one of the greatest joys of life is that dance of discovery, of what each new person is to the other. If we give birth, we gladly give up our baby within nine days; assured that our child will come back to us again and again in the form of other children, throughout our lives.
There is no space travel, since space programs were dependent on capitalism. There are aliens, but they’re so far away that we have to wait a few hundred years every time we want to say anything, so it doesn’t affect our lives very much. There are no weapons; the very idea is strange. Crime is very rare; when it does happen, in the worst cases, the crime is made public and the perpetrator is marked for others to see and avoid if they wish, but the criminal is still allowed free movement in the world. Their exile is social.
There’s no currency or system of money; there’s a worldwide, perpetual gift exchange. Objects have no value beyond their practical use; a plastic bowl is as good as a porcelain bowl. There’s no manufacturing because there’s no need for material goods. Everything is used on a recycled basis.
There are approximately fifteen hundred genders. Anyone who wants to bear a child can do so. No pregnancy is unplanned. There’s no correlation between genitalia and gender. Some of the genders are in fact the descendants of nationalist and ethnic identities, as there have long ceased to be nations or ethnic groups in any meaningful way, given the Law of Dispersion. Identity is completely voluntary and mutable.
The system of government, such as it is, is a worldwide sortition democracy, which is actually a very old form of democracy. A legislature is randomly selected from a pool of all available citizens, from the age of seven years old. This legislature is in session twenty-four hours a day, its members refreshed every hour, on the hour, mostly just to re-ratify a basic Bill of Rights, but also to take up whatever special questions apply on the global scale. As a citizen, you’re called to serve for about one hour every year or two. For local matters, moving clusters of people are governed by algorithms called “umbrellas” that take into account each person’s needs and preferences. An umbrella may govern a single wayhouse, or an area of a hundred square kilometers, depending on the number of people present, which is always changing.
A person can opt out of this system. They aren’t punished. They aren’t banned. They’re never refused food or shelter, care or companionship, wherever they go. The highest law is the rule of the road, which is radical hospitality. As the saying goes, The strangest stranger is your sister.
I’ve described this future to a few friends. About half think it’s a utopia and half think it’s a dystopia. A lot of people can’t imagine not having a permanent home or a set family. I understand that. I love my apartment in Durham. I strongly identify with my family. I love eating meat. I’m a creature of my century. At the same time, I want to explore the possibility that what we take for granted as the foundations of society are not only no more natural than any other state of being, but the ultimate roots of violence in the world. I wanted to see what happened if I pulled up those roots. And this thought experiment proceeded directly from in our current moment in history.
So how did I derive this version of the future from today?
To answer that, I need to name a very important book. Rebecca Solnit is probably most famous for Hope in the Dark and Men Explain Things to Me. But the book that felt most relevant to my research was A Paradise Built in Hell, published in 2009. The thesis of the book is that utopian communities of radical mutual aid arise spontaneously in the wake of natural disasters. Again and again, drawing from five case studies and decades of disaster research, Solnit describes spontaneous gathering, joyful presence, a profound euphoria among survivors, and a longing to return to that state.
But oftentimes—and increasingly so, in the modern era—those utopian communities are criminalized and destroyed by forces of so-called “civilization,” especially the state and wealthy elites. This was nowhere more apparent than in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, where flood victims seeking help were murdered and penned up because of the lies spread by the media, military, and state. Another example is the brief window of time after 9/11. The world was stunned by how New Yorkers united in radical mutual aid, love, compassion for total strangers—a state of being shattered by the return to “business as usual,” which in that case, meant waging a war that made no sense, and made the world a far worse place.
To paraphrase Solnit, we have it all backwards: the society we currently live in is the catastrophe, and going through a natural disaster gives us the opportunity to wake up from the spell. She argues that these spontaneous utopias are just as natural and native to us as any other way of living, if not more so; and in fact, one we’ve practiced as a species before. Her challenge is: how do we codify those spontaneous utopias into a daily, workable system of government?
My answer is the future world I just described to you.
It’s a world shaped by climate refugees—constantly wandering, practicing radical hospitality, making communities of mutual aid that form and collapse and form again.
And here’s why this specific version of the future matters: we are about to enter a unprecedented period of global natural disasters. In fact, we’re already in it. In the next thirty years, researchers estimate that up to 300 million people worldwide will be displaced because of climate change. As a comparison, the Syrian Civil War “only” displaced 13 million, “only” five million of whom actually left the country. So five million was enough to swing elections to the far right, see the rise of xenophobia, make Great Britain leave the European Union, break whole infrastructures that we took for granted, and has killed thousands of refugees. So now imagine those effects, multiplied by sixty, in the next thirty years.
This is why I predict that the next millennium will be shaped by climate refugees.
In September I attended a conference organized by a think tank based in Brussels. I remember a workshop on the refugee crisis in Europe. A Member of Parliament from a Scandinavian country confessed that she was exasperated by the dominant opinion in the room, namely, that European nations should accommodate the influx of refugees. She said, How do I explain this to my constituents who are about to retire, that the money for the pensions they’ve been expecting their whole lives is being depleted, because it’s going toward social services for people who are just arriving?
Well, the answer is very hard: those pensions existed in the first place because of the ongoing exploitation of the very countries those refugees are fleeing. The Centre for Applied Research published a study last year that estimated the amount of wealth flowing from so-called developing countries to so-called developed countries is twice that of the flow in the opposite direction. To quote anthropologist Jason Hickel, “What this means is that the usual development narrative has it backwards. Aid is effectively flowing in reverse. Rich countries aren’t developing poor countries; poor countries are developing rich ones.” In other words, our way of life in the United States depends directly on the impoverishment and terrorization of the rest of the world.
But no one can get elected by saying that. No one can get elected by saying the least of it. In my opinion, Hillary Clinton tried. She tried telling the white working class that their manufacturing jobs were simply not coming back, that the winds of the world were blowing in such a way that there was no way to make them come back, but that she had a plan to train them for the new jobs that did and would exist. Instead, as we all know, the white working class overwhelmingly voted for a man who promised to resurrect jobs that no longer exist, and in truth, never had the knowledge, intention, or desire to do so.
The wave of climate refugees is not the only wave that’s about to hit us. Global inequality has tripled since 1960. Oxfam recently reported that eight men hold more wealth than the lowest four billion combined. The McKinsey Global Institute estimated that by 2030—only twelve years from now—40% of all jobs will be automated. Given any one of these factors, it’s pretty clear to me that the systems in place are about to fall. In our lifetimes. That’s a given.
In my mind, that’s not a bad thing.
Here’s why: because it will give us that break, that window, into a radically other form of living. I try to think of wealthy Western nations really holding back 300 million refugees at their borders and the idea is laughable. Especially when millions of those refugees will be internally displaced, will be you and me. I try to think of police trying to keep people from occupying the thousands of empty apartments in our cities that are just parked there, as investments for the wealthy, and never inhabited. There will be too many of us. And maybe finally, we will realize, as a species, that borders don’t make sense anymore. That nation states don’t make sense anymore. That capitalism doesn’t make sense anymore. That not having a universal basic income doesn’t make sense anymore. To quote Le Guin again: “We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable—but then, so did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings.”
And—I will add—the earth acts on human beings. Climate change isn’t just the invisible hand driving us now; it has been, throughout all of history. The Agricultural Revolution was probably the result of climate change. The Levant and Nile Valley were probably settled because of climate change. Ancient Maya civilization rose and fell because of climate change. And now capitalism and the nation state may well fall because of climate change.
I find hope in that. I’m even thrilled by it. I believe we currently live in an age of spectacular barbarism, but that circumstances are colluding to give us a way out. Nowhere is it written that capitalism is natural, that poverty is natural, that war is natural, that patriarchy is natural, that monogamy is natural, that individualism is natural, or that the two-parent two-child family is natural. We made all that up. Hedge funds, corporations, institutions, oligarchies, profit, brands, nation states, borders—we made all that up, too. At the most fundamental level, they are fictions. We can make new fictions in their place.
And we must be very, very careful which fictions to choose.
Now I’m going to come back to the idea of dystopia. A lot of popular science fiction is set in post-apocalyptic landscapes, to the extent that a lot of people conflate science fiction with post-apocalyptic stories or with dystopia, as if the only futures available to us are dark. Think of Mad Max or Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. I do think Mad Max: Fury Road is one of the greatest films of all time. But I just never bought that vision of the future. I never believed it. Mad Max is a fun fantasy and The Road is bleakness porn, and that’s fine, but as for describing a plausible human future, I don’t think they do, and I don’t think they’re meant to. Nevertheless, they have an incredibly strong influence on popular imagination. As Solnit writes, “Disaster movies and the media continue to portray ordinary people as hysterical or vicious in the face of calamity…but the prevalent human nature in disaster is resilient, resourceful, generous, empathic, and brave.” As goes popular imagination, so goes belief, and so goes behavior. Which fictions we choose to elevate matters.
I want to draw especial attention to the treatment of AI—artificial intelligence—in these narratives. Think of Ex Machina or Blade Runner. I spoke at TED two years in a row, and one year, there were back-to-back talks about whether or not AI was going to evolve out of control and “kill us all.” I realized that that scenario is just something I have never been afraid of. And at the same moment, I noticed that the people who are terrified of machine superintelligence are almost exclusively white men. I don’t think anxiety about AI is really about AI at all. I think it’s certain white men’s displaced anxiety upon realizing that women and people of color have, and have always had, sentience, and are beginning to act on it on scales that they’re unprepared for. There’s a reason that AI is almost exclusively gendered as female, in fiction and in life. There’s a reason they’re almost exclusively in service positions, in fiction and in life. I’m not worried about how we’re going to treat AI some distant day, I’m worried about how we treat other humans, now, today, all over the world, far worse than anything that’s depicted in AI movies. It matters that still, the vast majority of science fiction narratives that appear in popular culture are imagined by, written by, directed by, and funded by white men who interpret the crumbling of their world as the crumbling of the world.
We don’t need more dystopian narratives. We already live in a dystopia. Dystopia is the lived reality of billions of people on earth, right now, including in the United States, and it didn’t start with Trump. Ask the people who wake up every day wondering whether this is the day they’ll be executed by the police. Or the people who are under surveillance because of their religion. Or the people who are taking refuge in churches so they aren’t deported back to the country they fled from, where they face torture and death. Or the people who stand on street corners with legs or arms missing, who supposedly fought for “national security” of “the greatest country on earth,” but came back to a system that fails to provide them with the most basic care. Or the hundreds of public servants who are being purged from the government at this moment. We in the U.S. are living through an authoritarian takeover right now. That’s not a conspiracy theory, it’s not conjecture, and it’s not hyperbole. It’s a textbook case.
Even if we manage to avoid an authoritarian future, even if Trump is impeached tomorrow, I don’t think we’re going to go back to normal. What is normal? I was born in 1981, so my understanding of ‘normal’ is small-town Pennsylvania in the nineties. Not much of world affairs ever touched my hometown, except our weekly copy of Newsweek that arrived on Tuesdays, with the latest headline on Kurt Cobain or Nancy Kerrigan. Because of that upbringing, I’ve always had an expectation of relative stability—that things were going to be the same from one year to the next. That there would always be such things as colleges, banks, hospitals, private land, armed police, publishing companies, coffee shops, or a judicial branch of government.
Now I’m not counting on any of it, even for the privileged. It’s a way of protecting myself, of staying light on my feet. I think those who don’t expect a return to normalcy will be the best positioned to harness the moment for good, to create and choose new stories that will guide us into the future. Stories where technology serves humankind and not profit. Stories unlike the ones we have in The Road or Ex Machina, where we aren’t terrified of each other, aren’t suspicious of each other, don’t enslave each other for profit and pleasure. Stories that reflect the lived reality of disaster research: that humankind is fundamentally kind. We live in a dystopia now. But the Age of Emergency is our best chance to change it.
So here are my instructions for the Age of Emergency.
1. Ask yourself what you really need.
Can you move?
Do you have food?
Do you have shelter?
Are you warm enough?
Do you have company, of family or friends?
Do you have the medicines you need to stay alive?
Do you have a voice?
Do you have a will?
Do you have time?
There may soon come a time when our definitions of what we need will change radically; but if we have them, we’ll have enough. The less you need, the more free you’ll be, and the more you’ll be able to change when the time comes.
2. Ask yourself what you really believe, and why you believe it.
Rebecca Solnit writes: “Any belief that is acted on makes the world in its image.” I would extend that to say: stories are a type of belief. This is why I said we must be very careful when we choose which fictions to elevate in popular culture.
It matters. Because when disaster strikes, will I stay inside to bar the door and make sure no one takes my stuff or eats me, like in The Road? Or will I check on my neighbors to make sure they’re okay, like in Parable of the Sower? I think I’ll do the latter, but I won’t really know until the time comes. I won’t know which stories I’ve really chosen to believe and act on. We have a choice of whether to create and consume positive visions of the future. It worries me that I don’t see many of them right now. Demand them, find them, recommend them, embody them.
3. Follow artists.
We don’t often think of artists as leaders. In fact, we don’t often think of artists as people, but as leprechauns who live beyond daily needs like groceries and toilet paper. I can attest that that’s not the case. We live in a culture saturated with art, everywhere we turn, online and offline, every minute of every day, and it profoundly influences our lives. But we’ve been so trained to devalue it—to expect it to come to us for free—that we are in serious danger of losing the voices we need most, at the time we need them most.
To quote activist Adrienne Maree-Brown, “All organizing is science fiction. When we talk about a world without prisons; a world without police violence; a world where everyone has food, clothing, shelter, quality education; a world free of white supremacy, patriarchy, capitalism, heterosexism; we are talking about a world that doesn’t currently exist. But collectively dreaming up one that does means we can begin building it into existence.”
The ones who do that dreaming in the first place? Are usually artists.
In other words, artists are absolutely leaders, in a way that no one else can be. Politicians have to worry about saying the thing that will get them elected. CEOs have to worry about saying the thing that will increase their profit shares. That’s fine—that’s their job. An artist’s job is just to tell the truth, or come as close to it as she can. And that’s why, to quote Le Guin again, “Resistance and change often begin in art.”
And when I say art, I don’t mean abstract paintings hanging in well-lit galleries. That’s just the 1% of the art world. Not surprisingly, it’s a world of wealthy white elites. Meanwhile, people of every color, of every age, in every country, in every socioeconomic class, make art. Subway dance is art. Church choirs are art. YouTube makeup tutorials are art. Memes are art. Fashion is art. Game of Thrones reaction videos are art. Graffiti is art. Vine videos were art, back when Vine existed—a platform brilliantly realized by brown and black teenagers, until it fell prey to corporate profit motives. We swim in art, the vast majority of it produced by those who are underpaid or not paid at all, who aren’t “seen” by the existing system of financial compensation. We have to be the ones who see them, instead. Find the artists in your life. Find a way to pay them for their work. Then follow them: they’re telling the truth.
Last fall, I went to Mexico for two months to learn Spanish. After finishing school in Oaxaca, I went to the coast. I chose a beach where the waves looked the right size and went out with my boogie board. The same thing happened over and over: I’d see a perfect wave curling right toward me, and I’d be in the perfect position to catch it, but as it got close, I saw it was way too big, so with my body half-turned, I’d hesitate and then try to dive into it, and it was too late and I’d wipe out. That happened three times (and I got sand in my sinuses) before I realized these waves were just too big.
I’ve thought about that situation many times since. About the moment of hesitation right before the wave comes down, when you know you’re screwed. When I think about the next fifty years, I have that same feeling: the wave is just too big.
But when talking about the near future, I don’t think it’s useful to say “we’re all doomed” or “the world’s going to end.” It’s a lazy way to disengage. There are eight billion of us. At least some are going to survive even the worst, including a nuclear war, a supervirus, or a methane hydrate burst. When people say “we’re all doomed,” what they really mean is that the status quo is doomed, and that’s potentially an excellent thing. We as a species don’t have the option of leaving this moment in time. Paradoxically, I find tremendous freedom in that. It’s not a matter of whether everything’s about to change. It’s a matter of which story of the future we choose now, so that we’ll be ready when the wave hits.
Let us choose wisely. Thank you.
If you appreciated this talk, and you’re not a patron yet, please consider supporting my work on Patreon. I am 100% patron-supported. Thank you.
“Authenticity” was first published in The Djinn Falls in Love, edited by Mahvesh Murad and Jared Shurin, March 2017. Photo by Monica Byrne: the desert in Farahzad, Iran, October 2014.
It started with a knock at the door. It was Abbas, holding a plate of oranges and a white plastic knife. I was glad because I was hungry. Even after the enormous evening meal in the main house, I was still hungry.
“I can’t stay, after,” was the first thing he said.
“That’s all right,” I said. “Come in.”
He did, but only one step at a time, as if he were unsure how far into the room he was allowed. But my guest room was tiny, more like a cell. I let him come.
Once he got to the other wall, he turned around. “The reason I can’t stay is because I have to be on set for a night shoot.”
“A set? A shoot? What are they filming?”
He looked out the window into the alley below, to see whether anyone might be listening, and then said in a low voice, “An adult film.”
The wind made a panel of the window spring open and knock against the outside wall. We both jumped at the sound. I went to the window and pulled it closed, and fastened the clasp. The glass continued to rattle in its casing.
“It’s like that out here, sometimes,” he said, as if in apology. “I grew up in the desert. The wind picks up right at this time of year.”
He still held the plate of oranges and the white plastic knife, rigid, in front of him, as if he were a statue. I wanted him to put them down so we could eat. I was also torn between the wind and the adult film, as both topics seemed worthy of comment. But I was hungry. I wasn’t used to being so hungry. I put my hand on his arm and drew him to the floor, and he understood, without words, what I wanted him to do. He pushed his thumb on the white plastic knife and turned the orange in his other hand. Juice spritzed and diffused in the air as he cut. He held out a double segment for me, and I took it and ate it, and immediately wanted more. But I didn’t want to be rude. I didn’t know what manners were like here; it was best to go slow, not to frighten him.
“I’ve never met anyone who worked on an adult film before,” I said, while I waited for more orange segments. “I watch normal films and think, How could they be skin on skin like that, and not be wet and hard, doing exactly what they look like they’re doing? But in interviews the actors say, ‘No, we don’t get aroused. Not when there’s an entire camera and lighting crew right in your face. None of our parts even touch. We bind them up in nylon.’”
“And it’s true,” he said, handing me another segment. “You never see scrota.”
He was matching me, tone for tone, reveal for reveal, wit for wit. “But you’re filming real sex,” I said.
“We’re filming Nilou Tar,” he said.
I smiled, mid-chew. It was a clever name – suggesting both lotuses and music.
“I’d be surprised if you’d heard of her,” he said. “She’s only famous in some circles. She’s setting up right now. I’m not needed till later.”
“Digital or celluloid?”
“Celluloid,” he said. “Nilou Tar only shoots in celluloid.”
He looked abashed. I felt bad. I’d been hasty and flippant. I didn’t want to be rude in my quest for authenticity.
“Well,” he said, gesturing with the knife, “all artists need constraints, don’t they? Infinite possibility is actually limiting.”
Ah, so he was artist-minded, too. I’d chosen well. “I don’t think so. I think infinite possibility is thrilling.”
“But we don’t have infinite time,” he said, monitoring my reactions from beneath ropes of dust-curdled hair. “And we can’t grasp infinity, not for more than a second or two. So we choose the constraints that are most interesting to us.”
I was learning about him. This was turning out to be part of my work here. I willed myself to be content, to flow alongside him. “All right. Why does Nilou Tar find celluloid an interesting constraint?”
“Because celluloid is a physical medium,” he said, “and so is the body, which is the most important thing in erotic film.”
“So are you her partner?”
He smiled and shook his head, as if I’d made a great joke. As if to answer, he put down the knife and pulled out his phone—cracked screen, a still from The Pear Tree – and showed me a video. A young woman in a wetsuit sat on the edge of a dock, pale-skinned, blonde-haired, her legs open and her shoulders hunched; she looked back at the camera once and squealed. Male voices exhorted her in English off-camera.
“Is this Nilou Tar?” I asked.
He laughed, and his hand flew to his mouth, to cup a little orange coming out. He pushed it back in, looking sheepish. “No. She’d call this tacky,” he said. “These are just some drunk university students.”
“What is she doing?”
“She’s waiting for a dolphin.”
I watched the woman in the video, and the grey dolphins streaking back and forth just below the surface, and the rippling black waters beyond.
“You don’t have to watch,” he said, second-guessing his choice to show me the video. He took the phone back, pressed a few buttons with his thumb, and then set it down again. “I was just making a visual analogy. Nilou is waiting for her partner. That’s the whole point of this shoot. The plan is for her to sit just like this, on top of a dune overlooking the desert, and then…we’ll just wait.”
I smiled at him, which made him uncomfortable. He solved it by talking more.
“We don’t know what they look like. We don’t know if they’ll come. We don’t know if we’ll even be able to see them, if they do. But,” he said, dropping his voice, “the guesthouse owners said they live in a community just a few kilometers north of here. I love them. I know I’m not supposed to, but I do.”
He smiled. He had one of those concave smiles with more teeth showing at the edges than in the middle. It gave him the appearance of a crazed cartoon character.
I swallowed the last of my orange and told him to close the door.
He did so.
I told him to turn off the lights.
He did so.
I saw his hands shaking a little. I wondered how experienced he was. He went to the corner and began to pile the blankets in a sort of nest. I waited. It was sweet. The orange mist lingered in the air like an incense.
Then he sat in the middle of his nest with his legs drawn up against his chest. He laughed, nervously, and spread his hands as if to say, Well, here I am.
I crawled to him and tapped his knee. It fell to the side, taking the suggestion. Then both legs fell open, like his body was blooming, and then his arm curled around the small of my back, and I was being kissed all over my face, as if I were a beloved doll.
How did I think it was going to be, when I first saw him? I’d been having dinner in the main house, on my third helping of everything on the table – flatbread, cream soup, khoresh, dizi, lamb kebab, chicken kebab, saffron rice, Shirazi salad, and pistachio gaz made on the premises, for which the guesthouse was famous – when I saw him at the other end of the table, admiring my appetite. I was not a normal student on holiday. He’d intuited this. I was hungry for an authentic experience. Just last week, over rose tea in our favorite underground haunt, my fellow student and I had been discussing my trip to the oasis. She understood how I craved new places, new foods, new experiences, new art, new men. She asked, as if posing the question to the cosmos, “What are the men there even like?” and I just stared at her, squinting, cocking my head this way and that, turning over one possible answer and then another.
I settled on the midpoint of the seesaw: “Strange.”
“Strange?” she asked.
“Strange,” I repeated.
And then we both said the word again, locked eye-to-eye, and bent our heads to the side in sync as if we were mirror images, drawing the word out like taffy.
I was half-asleep when I heard Abbas stir. I pretended to be asleep. He kissed my shoulder once. I heard rustling and shuffling, and then felt warm fabric settle against my skin where there’d been only air before.
When the door clicked shut, I opened my eyes. He’d draped the bedding all around me where I lay. The plate, the rinds, the white plastic knife were gone, but the smell of oranges lingered.
I turned over and stretched, enjoying the new aches, and then let my limbs settle into new delicious positions. I’d done well. I wanted to do that again. That was a good authentic experience. But the more I tried to remember the details, the more they slipped away – as if there was a veil in time, dividing the before and after. It bothered me. I tried to fall back asleep, but I couldn’t – the exhaustion had knocked me out at first; now, it kept me awake. And the wind was still so loud, as if the guesthouse were a plane careening through the sky at a terrible speed. How could they be filming porn in this wind?
I turned on my back and blinked at the ceiling. My questions weaved together and acted as a membrane that kept me from falling back into sleep. I sat up and started putting on my clothes.
When I was pulling my door shut and locking it, careful not to wake the other guests, I saw the tiny skull of a jackal mounted on the wall. I couldn’t believe I hadn’t noticed it before. Had I walked right past it? I tapped the bone snout, to test for realness. Maybe it was new, something the wind had blown in. I looked into its big black eye holes and admired its little teeth. I could smell the calcium dust of old bone.
Outside, the wind pushed me sideways and forward. I had to hold my headscarf down to keep it from unraveling and blowing off. In between gusts, I could hear the snuffling of camels in the corral next to the main house, and the crow of a rooster in the palm forest. But then the stone alleys gave way to dark dunes like standing waves. Abbas had said the community lived to the north of them. I saw a faint reddish glow in that direction. That must be the set. I made for it.
The wind got quieter, but the sand got deeper. I sank and slid sideways on my sandals. I hadn’t brought the right shoes. But I continued, now wondering whether I’d be welcome. Surely they were afraid of the police. I had a story ready if anyone should ask why I was there: I was curious, a progressive, open-minded film student. Which was the truth. Abbas would recognize me and confirm, having been inside me just two hours ago.
At the top of the ridge, I saw two people silhouetted black against a warm pomegranate light: a figure behind a camera, and a figure sitting on a rug. I assumed that was Nilou Tar. I could only see the back of her – she was sitting cross-legged, swathed and regal in black, on a long Persian rug.
I stopped. One silhouette was marching toward me. It was a woman in a hijab – the director, I assumed. Nilou Tar remained facing the desert.
“Who are you?” asked the director.
“I’m just a guest at the guesthouse,” I said. “I’m a student.” I felt stupid and childish, as if caught in a lie. From what I could see of the director’s face, that’s exactly what she thought.
“So you’re a student?” she asked with a touch of mockery. “What do you study?”
“Film,” I said.
She smirked. “Celluloid or digital?”
Like with Abbas, I felt this was a test of some kind. It was only fitting to be honest. “I’ve only worked in digital,” I said.
“Tell me why.”
I felt my face get hot. “It’s my native medium. I’m young,” I said. She didn’t look impressed. I remembered what Abbas had said, about artists choosing a set of interesting constraints. “I like how much I can do, how finely I can cut, how quickly I can move. I like that I can make quick decisions and splice segments, one into the other. I like that it moves as quickly as I do.”
The director’s face remained impassive. She was not convinced.
“But I want to learn other ways,” I said. “I was curious. I wanted to watch, or even help.”
Then Nilou Tar turned around on her rug. I could only see the shadows of her face in red and black, as if seeing the contours of an eroded goddess at Persepolis. She was much older than I’d expected – in her fifties.
“She can clear me of sand,” Nilou called to the director in a voice firm as an oboe, without even looking at me.
The director nodded. Apparently it was as good as done.
Nilou turned to face the desert again, and the director started walking back up toward her camera.
I sensed I shouldn’t wait for further permission. I staggered after her to the top of the dune, where the director handed me a long elegant horsetail brush in passing. I took it, felt the coarse hairs over the palm of my hand. I’d never felt such a thing. As I came closer to Nilou, I saw that the rug was laid over the ridge of the dune, which was so sharp it was almost a right angle. Her legs were dangling over the side, much like the blonde woman in the dolphin video Abbas had shown me earlier. Where was he? He’d said he wasn’t needed until later; how much later, I didn’t know.
I chose a position right at the outside of the pool of red light, making sure I wasn’t casting a shadow or showing up in the camera’s line of sight, and knelt, and shifted back and forth to make comfortable wells in the sand for my knees, and waited.
The wind gusted, like a soundtrack. I looked at Nilou, outlined in the red light. She looked serene. She had a severe, queenly beauty, not the girlish cuteness I’d expected of a porn star. She was looking north in silence. It was hard for me to be silent, or even very still. I tried. To distract myself, I tried to remember more about Abbas. But it was as if there’d been a jump cut in my life, an edit ahead to a later time. Memory depends on the medium, I thought; brains are such imperfect recorders. I needed to see him again. I needed to remember.
The wind was picking up again. My eyes were closing of their own accord, against the wind and the red light. The sexual exhaustion that had first allowed me to sleep, and then forbade me to sleep, was now washing over me again.
Through half-closed lids, I saw Nilou sit up.
I opened my eyes fully and sat up, too. The director had gone rigid behind the camera. I looked to where they were both looking.
A male figure stood at the bottom of the dune.
I pulled out my phone, clicked it on, and – making sure that no one could see – positioned it in the sand, on its side, recording.
He was tall – almost two meters, I guessed – and wore a gauzy white shroud around his body. I couldn’t see his face. He wore a mask over the top part of his face, with a long snout and big black holes for eyes. For a moment I thought he had no feet, but then he began climbing toward us, and I saw them rising and sinking in the sand. He had real feet. As he came toward us, he opened his arms and let the shroud fall on the dune behind him. Underneath, he wore a linen tunic around his waist, bands of gold around his arms, and leather straps that crossed over his sternum. He had a broad chest and round, muscled shoulders that glittered, as if rubbed with mica.
He stopped in front of the rug where Nilou sat. He looked absolutely real.
Nilou had drawn up her knees on her rug. She looked up at him, determined, but was breathing hard, which I hadn’t expected. I could see she hadn’t expected this. She hadn’t known what to expect, but she hadn’t expected this. He looked just like a real man, though bigger and smoother and with a strange sparkle to his skin. She had expected him to be incorporeal or invisible. Here he was, enfleshed. I saw his jawline beneath the mask. He looked like Abbas, but he was much bigger.
The man dropped to all fours, crawled forward, and tapped one of her knees.
It fell to the side, taking the suggestion.
Then both of her legs fell open and she fell back, like her body was blooming, and the man crawled up over her, kissing her along the way, not taking any notice of me, or the director, or the camera, or my blinking phone. I was so near to them. I told myself to watch for the signs of authenticity. I told myself to watch for any signs of trickery. She pulled back her black robes, and even in the red light, I could see her pubic hair, no nylon, nothing flattened, nothing bound. He shifted his sparkling hips to the side, and there was pubic hair there, too; nothing flattened, nothing bound indeed. Nilou reached up with both hands. I could see skin-to-skin contact. I could see him push, and I could see her draw him in, and then he moved forward and disappeared inside her, just like his foot had sunk into the sand. They were joined. It was real. The both of them closed their eyes as if falling asleep for just a moment, turning their heads, one to the right and one to the left.
But the stillness gave way to motion; human bodies can’t linger like that.
I didn’t move. The director didn’t move.
Time went slowly.
I felt hungry again.
I had never been so aware of time.
What interesting constraints for a soul to choose: to have a body, made of muscle and bone and fat, discrete in time and space.
They seemed to be taking forever. There was no wind at all. Now more of their clothes were off, and her dress was up around her waist, and her hips were up off the rug, reaching up and drawing him down as if tugging on a kite. His hands pressed into the rug on either side of her, his knuckles pale and sparkling. They were conjoined below the waist and I could no longer see what was happening. But it was intensifying. Neither of them made any sound, besides their breathing. Nilou had her hands on his hips, now, fingernails digging into his flesh, steering herself up, eyes wide open as if angry. He looked afraid. His mask slipped. I willed it not to come off and drop on her, not to ruin her rhythm. But I could see more of his face now – more ear, more jawline, more forehead. He was indeed Abbas. But he’d grown since I’d last seen him.
Nilou threw her head back and screamed. But the scream went nowhere. It never even left her mouth. Then Abbas pushed his fist into the sand just beyond the rug, and it disappeared into it, wrist-deep.
I watched for authenticity.
I could see them pull apart. She pulled her black dress down. He pulled his white shroud back around him. Neither I nor the director moved, still, even as Nilou flopped onto her side, panting. As for Abbas, he trudged back down the dune, beyond the circle of light, until he was lost to sight in the darkness.
I turned back to the set.
Nilou and the director were facing me.
It ended with the video screen going black.
My fellow student handed me back my phone, careful not to drop it in her rose tea. Her face was just barely composed, but she was titillated, I could tell: her features oozed from human to dolphin to jackal and back again. Emotion, like memory, depends on the medium.
“He brought you oranges?” she said.
“Yes. He was a sweet one. What do you think?”
“Wipe it and shoot again,” she said. “Next time I want to see more cock.”
Photo by author: American Tobacco Campus, Durham, NC, May 2014.
Subject: Interesting news
Date: June 1st
Hi chimichanga! It’s your Dad.
Don’t tell your Mom but guess what. I am in a play this summer. I saw a sign for auditions for The Tragedy of King Lear in a hippie coffee shop where I like to read the newspaper and I thought heck why not. And they cast me as the lead. I guess I was the only old man who auditioned. I didn’t even know the play but it’s about an old king who goes crazy because his older two daughters betray him, and only the youngest one really loves him. Sound familiar? Ha, ha!
From afar, Suja saw Jesse sitting alone on their special bench. He seemed distracted. She walked right up to him and sat down next to him, not looking at him, though his body radiated heat.
“It’s closing night. You better pick a special warm-up,” she said.
He noticed her, as if coming out of a reverie. “All right,” he said. “Let’s do my favorite. Categories. First one to hesitate loses.”
“What’s the category?”
“Okay.” She glanced down at Jesse’s knuckles, pale knobs with gray hair, and smiled, wry. “Deaths in Shakespeare.”
“Deaths…in…Shakespeare!” Jesse repeated, grandiose. Then, “Cordelia.”
Suja narrowed her eyes, and thumped him on the shoulder. “You can’t say my character!”
“Ouch! Don’t hit me, I’m an old man.”
“Whatever.” Suja looked out toward the stage, pouting. But she was pleased at the rhythm of their banter. Things were going well.
Jesse rubbed his shoulder, chuckling. Then, as if suddenly self-conscious, he leaned back and peered out at the audience through a thin strip between the curtain and the wall. He was looking toward the audience a lot tonight. Who was he looking for? Suja wished he’d stop and pay attention to her.
Jesse bent down and picked up a safety pin from the ground. Then he dropped it. Then he rubbed his hands together and straightened up. When he spoke again, his voice was more gruff, adult, businesslike. “So. Are you going to keep acting after this?”
Suja didn’t like the shift in his voice. But she could always bring him back to ‘her level,’ as he called it; she just had to be patient. She shrugged and swung her legs like she didn’t care. “Probably not. Dad wouldn’t want me to.”
“Do you always do what he says?”
Suja turned to face him. His lips were parted and his eyes had gone a little out of focus. That was a good sign.
But he retreated back over the line, and spoke again in his grown-up voice. “Did he, ah, come to any of the shows?”
Suja snorted. “No. He thinks this is a waste of time. Anyway he’s in Dubai now.”
“Huh.” Jesse uncrossed his ankles, then crossed them again. “Well, you’re pretty good at acting. I could see you going to a conservatory.”
“I wish. He wants me to go somewhere in the Ivy League.”
“I never went to college,” said Jesse, raising one eyebrow. “I was too busy with…Aquarius.”
Jesse’s mouth yawned open in a silent laugh. “Oh God, you’re so young! It means I was a hippie. You never heard of the Age of Aquarius? Free love and all that?”
“‘Make love not war’? ‘Love the one you’re with’?”
“It’s simple, really,” he said. “We believed that no one should tell you who to love.”
“But nobody tells anyone that now.”
“Sure they do. You can’t be with someone who’s married, or if you’re married you can’t be with someone else, or too much older than you. I thought it was dumb.”
“It’s still dumb.”
“You’ll know all about it soon enough,” he said, and winked at her. “You’re what, eighteen?”
“Seventeen,” said Suja.
He turned away and shook his head. “Seventeen,” he muttered to himself.
Places. The stage manager whispered deep backstage and the word was repeated, touching flame to flame. Places.
Jesse planted his hands on his knees and heaved himself up off the bench. Suja felt the sudden vacuum at her side.
“Okay, kiddo, break a leg.” He glanced toward the audience again, then lingered in front of her, as if pondering something else to say, but then disappeared backstage.
Suja sat back on the bench.
Darkness had fallen. Stagehands scuttled over the catwalks.
She got up and wandered among the other actors who stood in the dark with their heads bowed, sightless like cave fish. She reviewed the exchange with Jesse. She knew he’d been flirting with her ever since they’d been cast together. He tried to be casual about it, like it was a joke, but she knew from his body language he wasn’t just joking. Tonight was the last performance. She’d finally tell him.
I think I’m ready. I think you’re the one.
[He takes her hand, kindly, this broad-shouldered kingly man.]
I’ve put a lot of thought into this. I just feel so close to you.
[He cups her cheek, makes a self-deprecating joke about his age.]
[She laughs.] Yes, I’m sure. [She decides to make a joke of her own.] I’m Cordelia, right? I’m the only one who loves you.
From the stage, there came a ripping sound. Suja turned. The curtain was being pulled back along its knotted cords so quickly that the bottom edge trailed the top, widening a dark V where the audience sat. Sudden light made Suja shield her eyes.
Waiting on their cues, the other actors gathered around her. They adjusted their cuffs and shook out their legs and rolled their shoulders. Suja stood still, her arms crossed, calculating how to make what needed to happen, happen. She felt as though she were standing in surf, and the sand was draining away beneath her heels, leaving pedestals that collapsed under her weight.
Their cue arrived. They strode forward, and light surged over them.
Everyone in the play dies of course. That’s Shakespeare for you. The cast is a hoot. Some of them your age in fact. The one who plays Cordelia (that’s the youngest daughter) is eighteen, an Indian girl. Well I guess she was born here but her parents are Indian. Anyway she’s very bright. She put me to shame at our first rehearsal. I brought donuts for everyone though and they were much appreciated and maybe made up for my being so “green.” The Indian girl ate three of them. She could really put them away.
Suja shivered out of character as she crossed the threshold.
She picked her way to the changing room. A dozen actors rested there, coming and going between their scenes. It was too dark to see much. During a show, the room felt like the bridge of a submarine: quiet operations in the oceanic night.
Jesse would have to come in later for a costume change. She, however, was at leisure: her character didn’t appear again until Act IV, so she could do whatever she wanted for the next hour.
The couch was full: Edgar, Edward, Reagan, Gloucester, Fool.
She had an audience. She was going to rehearse.
Standing in front of the dressing rack, she unhooked her gown with slow twists of her fingertips. The fabric loosened around her shoulders and she emerged, back blooming, like a cicada shedding its shell.
Suja paused to look over her shoulder. Anyone could see her, if they wanted to. If they looked up right now.
She unsleeved herself and the dress flopped over at the waist. She pushed it down with both hands, wriggling, bending over, until the dress lay rumpled at her feet. She stepped out of its ring and picked it up, taking her time, selecting a hanger, putting it away. She folded her elbows behind her back and unhooked her maroon lace bra and pulled it off. Her heavy breasts wagged in the blue light.
She turned around, casually, as if scanning the room for a missing item. She knew she had that retro kind of pinup body, an hourglass figure, a devi icon, and she wanted to be appreciated.
But no one looked at her. They looked at their laps, still and mute. A night train full of statues.
Suja waited a few seconds more, shifting her weight, pretending to stretch.
Still, no one looked up.
She turned back around, angry. No one was playing along. She re-fastened her bra and yanked her next costume off the rack with such violence that it rocked back and forth. Jesse always looked, when he was there. He’d lift his head just a little, trying to appear not to, trying to get a look.
She didn’t have to change into her costume for another hour, so she pulled on leggings and a tank. It felt right: casual, but calculated for maximum sensuality. A teenage girl in leisurely flower. Yes, this would do. She stalked back out to the special bench in the wings and waited for Jesse. She watched him onstage and rubbed her hands together, and the dead skin made spindles of paste in her palms.
She would tell him now. Otherwise there might never be a good moment again.
She listened to Jesse’s voice. He was giving his big speech.
O, let me not be mad, not mad, sweet heaven! Keep me in temper: I would not be mad!
And neither would she. This was her moment of triumph.
Jesse was done. He strode into the wings, his great velveteen cape trailing him. He circled, spending his momentum.
Suja watched him. Her heart beat faster, but she kept still.
Jesse got his breath back. He leaned forward again to peer through that tiny strip, to scan the audience for someone he didn’t find. Suja drummed her fingers on the bench, waiting.
When he pulled back, he squared his shoulders and smiled at her.
She took it as a sign. The time was now.
“Good show so far, eh?” he said, sitting down next to her, placing his metal prop crown on the floor. He had left only a narrow space between them. She could smell his cape, a dusty relic brought up from the theater’s storage.
“Yeah,” she said, stalling. She had to segue somehow. “And…I thought about what you said.”
“What? What’d I say?” He held up his hands in mock-defense.
“What about it?”
She turned toward him. He didn’t look at her. But her courage grew. She angled her hips, more deliberately this time.
It worked. His eyes flickered over her, the glints hopping in the dark.
“About free love,” she said, making her voice soft.
Jesse sat still, tented his fingers, and said nothing.
He was ready too. She knew it.
“I think I’m ready. To have intercourse,” she said. “I want you to be my first.”
Suja held her breath, blushing, expectant of his next words, which she’d heard in her mind so many times.
Silence followed, enough time for seven heartbeats.
Then Jesse shook his head and planted his hands on the bench and got up and pulled his costume around him. He snatched up his prop crown. “Jesus, girl,” she heard him mutter as he disappeared into the darkness.
Suja, alone, was an open cavity.
She replayed the last few moments in her mind. Then again.
He said no? He said no.
In her mind, the line repeated: I would not be mad.
So anyway enough blathering. I wonder if your Mom would let you come see the play. Or just come and don’t tell her. We open on July 6th and we run till July 26th and you could come and stay with me any time. If your Mom doesn’t want you to take the bus up then she could drive you and do whatever she likes after that, go to yoga or something. Then you could come by yourself and surprise me in the audience.
Suja sat on the floor, in the wings, with her back to the cinderblock wall. She gazed up at the catwalk, where stagehands were shaking the thunder sheet. A storm was raging in the play. Lear had gone mad. And what of Cordelia? On the other side of the curtain, she could hear actors moving in reverent quiet, as if in a fever ward. She heard whispers, but no words. She wanted to clap her hands over their mouths, shut them up, suffocate them. Instead she turned over on her hands and knees and crawled away from them, her knees drawing all the dust in her path.
She settled in a new corner, alone and obscured from the others’ sight, near a big cloth pile. She watched the stage, mouthing each line as it was said.
At length she felt hot. Her clothes was too tight. A tangy smell clung to her armpits. She arched her back to work out the kinks that had sprung in her joints, but they didn’t go away. She fidgeted again. She pulled down her straps, to cool herself. But soon she was rolling up her leggings, too. She had done everything right. There was no reason for Jesse to say no, especially when he so clearly wanted her. But maybe he just needed time. Maybe he’d reconsider later. It occurred to her that she could just walk out of the production onto the street but no, one cannot violate sacred time. The show must finish and everyone must play their part. So she had to stay. Everything was too hot and tight. She got onto all fours and hunched over, pulling her shirt off, then her leggings. She kicked them into the base of the cloth pile and then arranged a black curtain over it so she didn’t have to look at them.
Now Suja could relax a little. She leaned back against the wall in her maroon lace bra and panties. She could feel the stage grit beneath her thighs. Her legs splayed open toward the stage, dust alighting on her baby-oiled skin. Her belly puffed with rapid breaths.
Finally, she stood up with her hands on her hips and looked around. She needed something new to wear, something befitting her new situation. She took the black curtain from the top of the cloth pile and arranged it over her head and shoulders like a highwayman’s cloak. Looking around, she spotted a safety pin in the dust—the same one Jesse had picked and dropped before the show—and used it to fasten the cloth beneath her chin. She swished out with both arms. The cloak fell about her like great big wings, covering up the lingerie. Delighted, she crept backstage, now even more invisible than before.
Otherwise life is good for me. Every morning I go to a coffee shop called Bean There Done That. Ha ha. The girls there know me. As soon as they see me come in the door they’re starting on my latté with whole milk. I never thought I’d need anything but black coffee but I’m getting soft in my advanced years. I even get a donut sometimes. OK I lied. I get one every time!
Suja poked her head out between the curtains backstage. She was wearing sunglasses, now, and a boa. She watched Cornwall gouge the eyeball of Gloucester, and mouthed the famous line Out, vile jelly! like the refrain to a teenage anthem, then withdrew again, a cuckoo into its clock.
She slunk along the walls backstage, making her way to the changing room. This was the appointed time. Jesse changed his costume now, in this little interval. She watched him every night. But now he’d be expecting her. So she’d hide.
She stepped around the others, slothful subjects of an enchanted kingdom. She slid into a corner and crossed her legs, making sure the cloak was arranged to cover her body. She became still, feigned inactivity, to blend in with the darkness.
Jesse came into the room. Suja watched him. Did his body move differently? Did his motions betray any psychological disturbance? He looked at the couch where Suja usually sat. He relaxed when he saw she wasn’t there.
He stood with his back to her, in a pool of soft blue light. He put down his prop crown on a table. Here began the sacred ritual. He pulled off his cloak and draped it over a hanger, taking care to fasten the toggle so it wouldn’t fall off. He untied his tunic, and loosened the undershirt up around the waistband.
Suja leaned forward out of her sitting position and began to slink forward, low to the ground. She took care that she couldn’t be seen in his mirror. She noted the delta of sweat gathering down his back.
He pulled his undershirt out of his breeches, so his torso was naked. Suja paused to look. His shoulders were round, his back was broad, and his muscles rippled under his skin like piano keys. She felt dizzy and put down a hand to steady herself as he began to unlace his pants. He pushed them down and bent into a figure-four. His balls swung from one leg to the other, a pendulum in 6/8 time. Suja opened her mouth in a silent scream to mark the appearance. He was fully naked now: angles and planes in blue. Suja crawled a little bit closer. Jesse towered above her, leaning back on one leg like Zeus at leisure, searching for his Act V breeches on the rack. She noted how his legs ballooned with muscles at the calves, muscles that contracted and loosened as he shifted his weight. This body was its own thing, she thought, not really a person at all, but a beast acting with beast intelligence, like her own. She shuffled a little closer. She could smell him: bitter dirt, walnut sweat. She was very close now, within arm’s length. With one hand on the ground to balance her, she reached out with her other hand, inch by inch, and it floated up between his legs like a zeppelin, seeking something warm to cup.
He was looking in the mirror. He had become still. He was ready.
Suja watched her hand move in space. But it did not go where she meant it to go. It sailed between his legs like a tailfin and dropped back down, to the prop wildflower crown that lay on the ground, the crown that he needed for his next scene. She grasped it and turned her wrist, so that it turned also, and drew the crown between his legs, not a single cloth flower touching his skin.
She took the crown with both hands and pressed it down on her head.
Jesse suddenly moved. Suja saw he was about to bend over. She pushed herself back with her hands, removing herself from his space and slinking away like a dog into shadows.
Donuts are a little pleasure I allow myself. They make them on the premises in the back every morning which is what makes Bean There Done That a cut above the rest. I get a powder sugar one every time. Sometimes I eat it with my hands and get powder all over my hands and beard, sometimes I cut it into bites with a knife and fork, sometimes I dip it into my latté. The other people in the coffeeshop watch me but it’s OK. I like to be the town eccentric. If you come here you can tell everyone I’m not crazy, ha ha.
Suja, wearing the wildflower crown, watched Jesse exit the other side of the stage. He wore only long breeches and a blanket fluttering open to reveal a sweating chest. He had just finished his big madness scene. Again, he peered through the narrow strip between the curtain and wall, looking for someone in the audience. Who! Suja wanted to know. He looked exasperated, which pleased her. She liked to imagine that whoever he was looking for was not there, and that he had searched for his wildflower crown wildly, helplessly. But she had claimed it from him.
Suja stepped on tiptoe, out of the shadows. Jesse saw her. Her hands moved up to her crown. She plucked it off, rotated it and set it down again, like a stripper with a top hat.
Jesse crossed his arms and looked down.
Suja let her tongue hang out. She pulled back the lips of her cloak. She hooked her thumb to her panties, and began to pull them down.
He didn’t look. He walked backstage, out of sight, robes flowing behind him.
Suja stared, her tricks forgotten.
What more could she do? She had to make him see her.
She took off the prop crown and examined it. The cloth flowers blossomed from green plastic stems. She began to pick off the plastic with her fingernails until the wire was bare. Then she drew the wire across her chest, lightly at first and then, getting used to the sting, deep enough to draw blood. He would see this, surely, when they were onstage together in the final scene, as prisoners.
Anyway think about what I said about coming up here to see the play. Vermont is nice in the summer. Not disgusting and smelly like the city. The bus ride is six hours. Not the best for your butt I know but I’d pay for it. I have air conditioning in the whole house and just work when I want to because the company runs itself. I just get to sit back and enjoy my life. My life is pretty perfect, not much of anything missing.
When they both came offstage from their prison scene, Suja went ahead of Jesse. Knowing he was following her, she led him to a spot deep backstage, quiet, dark, and began to take off her plastic prop chains.
He seized her shoulders from behind, gentle but firm. He turned her around. “Suja, what’s going on?” He touched his finger to her chest, held it in the light, then showed her his fingertip—watery-red—as if showing a dog its vomit. “What are you trying to do here?”
Finally, he was looking at her.
She feigned indifference, shrugged.
Jesse clamped a hand on her shoulder. He was breathing heavily, in her face.
Suja bit her lip and worked at one handcuff.
In exasperation, Jesse reached down to expedite the process.
Like a spider she caught him.
She seized his hand and pulled him to her body. She forced his mouth open with her own, like a speculum. He sputtered and gagged, straining away, but she gripped his arm with one hand and then the other, forced his face toward her again. She dug around his mouth in circles, tasting all of his palate: beer, spearmint, thick walnut saliva.
Instead of pushing her away, he began snorting as if eating. He patted her like a blind man trying to make his way, feeling for the lip of her cloak, and slipping his hand inside to squeeze her breast over and over. He moved his head in accordance with hers, now, first one way and then the other, to mash tongues.
She felt a hard bolt against her thigh. She dropped to her knees even as he shoved her down, and gripped her shoulders, wheezing. He produced his white penis from some secret slit and anchored it against her face. She grabbed it and took it in. Above her, he sagged against the wall, looking down, his mouth a gaping black hole.
Suja got careless. As she pumped her face more violently her teeth caught his skin, and he lurched away, bent double. Her mouth was empty. She scuttled forward on her knees to take him back in, but he held up his hand to ward her off. He was huddled by the wall, assembling himself. She tried again to scuttle forward, to begin again. But this time he pushed her to the floor.
She crouched on all fours. He slumped against the wall. The two eyed each other, panting.
“I knew you wanted me,” she whispered.
He looked away and closed his eyes.
He took several long, deep breaths.
Then he pushed himself against the wall and stood up straight. He pulled his cape around his shoulders and smoothed back his hair. He zipped his zipper and buttoned his button. Only then did he regard her again, serene and untroubled, as if from a great height.
“Yeah, now you know, you little cunt,” he said. “Aren’t you glad?”
He squared his shoulders and walked past her as if nothing had happened. Suja turned and watched him go, farther and farther away. Then she could hear him, striking up a light banter with someone else.
She began to think. This could all still be saved. Yes. Had it gone differently, he might still be here. Maybe if she’d waited until after the show? Or maybe if she’d said something other than what she said? She planned and planned. She would figure it out.
Suja stood. She rolled down her sleeves, straightened her bodice, and smoothed back her hair. Then she went to the prop table and picked up her last prop, a noose of thick hemp rope, and drew it around her neck.
Subject: Re: Interesting news
Date: July 27th
Thanks for inviting me to your play. Sorry I couldn’t come—I guess Mom didn’t tell you, but I’m in a summer program that only just finished, so I wouldn’t have been able to make it anyway. I guess it’s too late to say break a leg. But hey! There, I said it.
“Traumphysik” was first published on Tor.com, June 2016. Photo by author: a coconut on the beach on southern Rarotonga, the Cook Islands, May 2009.
I suppose that, after a brilliant coed graduates from MIT and volunteers for the war effort, the only place the Navy can bear to send her is a nameless atoll in the Pacific.
They’re lucky it suits me.
I’ve been assured my job is tremendously important. I believe them. I know it is. I maintain a generator that powers a signal light that is visible up to thirty thousand feet, vertically. Our planes fly much lower than that, of course, but I mention the strength of its output because it’s a bragging point.
I maintain the signal. I am the landmark, the light in the dark.
This atoll is approximately an acre in size. The Japanese don’t have a name for it. We don’t have a name for it. So I am trying to think of a suitable name for it. Something to do with my name. Lucy, Lucia, Lucid, Lucifer. I’m not sure the US military would take kindly to the last one. Oh, too late, it’s done, then. The name of the atoll will be Lucifer. It means ‘light-bearer,’ so it’s very appropriate. It’s a reclamation of the name: not the Judeo-Christian bogeyman, but the light of science and reason.
Actually, my current situation—isolated, with limited responsibility and an overabundance of free time—is an ideal situation in which to run my dream experiments. I’ve brought with me Professor Gaertner’s text on lucid dreaming. The first step toward lucid dreaming, he posits, is hyperawareness of phenomena in the waking state. For example, I must count the fingers on my left hand several times a day. The reasoning being that, when I do the same thing out of habit within my dream and come up with a nonstandard result (three fingers, or nine), I will know that I’m dreaming.
And when I achieve this state, and keep it stable, I can begin my experiments.
Last night I had a breakthrough. While still dreaming, I opened my eyes and held my left hand in front of my face and counted five fingers; however, each of the fingers appeared cracked and roasted, like pork on a spit. But I was not alarmed. I simply recognized that this was a nonstandard result, and therefore that I must be lucid dreaming. I sat up on my mat. I managed to touch my right hand with my left index finger before my excitement woke me up. I considered it excellent progress.
I’m supposed to walk two brisk laps around the atoll every morning and log it in the station log, to assure the Navy I am keeping myself fit and alert and occupied. I did when I first arrived. But now I just wander at will.
In my notebook, I’m keeping a record of the tides. I’ve also begun to classify all the species here, like Darwin on Galapagos, except on a far more humble scale. For example, there are geckos, gnats, crabs, and little pigs. Albatrosses come and go. I’ve seen at least one frigate bird from a distance. I make note of the markings on their bodies and their habits of locomotion. I’ve developed a rudimentary classification matrix for the entire ecosystem, including the seagrasses that grow like so much hair between my shack and the sea, based on what will probably prove to be meaningless characteristics. But I have to occupy my time somehow. I have a newfound appreciation for history’s naturalists who made it their life’s work. Linnaeus, I hardly knew ye.
When I was finished cataloging everything, I did something I now regret. I carried one of the little pigs—a female, who was quite docile, and seemed happy to go for a ride—into the surf. I wanted to see if it could swim. I thought it must be able to swim, the species being so proximate to water, even though its ancestors were likely ship-borne vermin.
So I carried it down into the surf until I was knee-deep. In retrospect, I shouldn’t have gone so far out. I let it down into the water. At that moment, a wave of unusual force slapped my midsection and I fell into the water. I lost sight of the little pig. Then I glimpsed it again, underwater, twitching and writhing and sinking, clearly unable to swim. I reached for it but just then, another wave slapped me back, leaving me even more disoriented than before. I lost sight of it altogether this time. I didn’t recover it, or even see it again.
I felt quite bad. Maybe I should stick to physics.
In my dream last night, I managed to stand up in front of the full-length mirror I’d positioned at the foot of my mat. (The Navy sent it with me. Of course I must have a full-length mirror. God forbid I should be unaware of my appearance.) I was very intrigued to see that my image was not inverted—the MIT insignia on my nightshirt read MIT, not TIM as it does normally in waking life. I remember receiving that nightshirt my sophomore year; it was a gift from Professor Gaertner—-the wife Sofia, not the husband Bernhard; I should clarify, as they both bear that title—who thought I might be lonely as one of the only coeds at the Institute. I appreciated that.
And now here I stood, wearing the same nightshirt, noticing how MIT stayed MIT. This is the first deviation from known physics in waking reality.
In honor of the Gaertners’ German heritage, I’ve decided to call my experiment (and the universe it elucidates and its attendant systems) Traumphysik, which sounds more rigorous than “dream-physics.” Everything sounds more rigorous in German.
I had my daily check-in with base at noon. I’m told the war is going well. I take their word for it.
They asked whether I was keeping up with my fitness routine. I said yes.
They asked whether I had enough food and water. I said yes.
They asked whether I was having any trouble with the generator. I said no.
I heard another voice ask me if I was lonely and then muffled laughter and then shushing and then silence. I said nothing.
I lit the signal in the evening as a new squadron flew over. Supply planes, using my atoll for a landmark. I could make out the numbers on their underbellies. They looked like a school of flying fish overhead—and I, at the bottom of the sea. They flashed their call sign in Morse code and I flashed back. Lucifer. I am the light-bearer.
I’m developing quite a taste for coconut. I’m not tired of it; on the contrary, it’s the only thing I crave now. I split the hairy brown ones on a spike and then carve up the flesh with my knife.
It’s 3:14 a.m. (pi! How serendipitous!) and I write by candlelight. I just succeeded in performing Galileo’s experiment on falling objects—in my dream. Before going to bed, I had placed a feather and a watch on my bedside table. When I got up in Traumphysik, I picked up the two objects, remembering to remain very calm. I raised my hands so that they were spaced above the floor equally. Then I let go. The watch and the feather both floated down, impossibly, maddeningly slow, like particles sinking in a column of water, but at the same rate of acceleration, as theorized would occur in a vacuum or (observably) in the absence of an atmosphere.
But oddly enough, neither the feather nor the watch dropped in a straight line. They fell diagonally and away from each other, tumbling as if down opposite sides of an invisible mountain.
I was so excited I woke up. I couldn’t help it. I had enough wit to light my candle and open my notebook. So here I record: This is the second deviation from the known laws of physics in waking reality. The next step is to repeat the process twice, to confirm the result.
But for now—back to sleep.
When I woke up today, I found that my watch was broken.
I didn’t actually drop it, of course—I was lucid-dreaming, not sleep-walking. It was still on my bedside table where I had left it. But it was stopped at 3:14 a.m., at the moment I woke to record my progress. It’s too bad. It was a graduation gift from the Gaertners.
But aside from that regret, this is an interesting result. It could be mere coincidence. Or it could be that the waking and dreaming worlds are related. Freud would furrow his brow and shake his head at me—How obvious, Lucy, how very obvious. But Professor Gaertner’s work takes the null hypothesis, as it should; he assumes that the dreaming and waking worlds are entirely uncorrelated, even despite all anecdotal evidence (and cultural momentum) to the contrary.
Regardless, I intend to continue with my experiments. I have to continue work on the dream world. Or is it only my dream world? Is the Traumphysik the same from person to person, or different? It would be fascinating either way: If Traumphysik is the same from person to person, that suggests the existence of a real physical world to which we collectively travel each night; on the other hand, if Traumphysik varies from person to person, then one’s own Traumphysik must represent the subconscious world in which one lives. One’s own Platonic cave. One’s own fires and figures and shadows.
There is no way to test others’ Traumphysik at this time, as I am alone. Therefore I assume the null hypothesis: My Traumphysik is entirely uncorrelated to others’ Traumphysik. It is my own place.
I am thrilled to report that the first Galileo dream-experiment yielded the same result twice more: The watch and the feather fell at the same rate, down opposite inclined planes, and hit the floor at the same time. The watch is still broken, and the feather appears unchanged.
I’m recording all of my results in this notebook, as I was trained to, by Professor Gaertner. It’s a pity his other students were so susceptible to prejudice. My time there was calm at the beginning, and I was treated kindly as the only coed in his class. But then it became clear that I was the brightest student in the class. The others didn’t take it well. I recall a time when I was crossing campus at night, in the Cambridge winter, and was waylaid by several figures in black cloaks, who blindfolded and gagged me. I thought it might be a harmless “hack,” but I began to perceive malice on the part of my interceptors, as they called me rude names, and then led me to a place where I was stripped of my coat and shoes and outer garments until I was wearing nothing but my underclothes. I was told to count to twenty. Of course I could only do so in my head as I was still gagged.
When I removed the blindfold, I was alone. I walked home, which was several blocks away, in the snow, with the temperature somewhere in the single digits. The house matron had to draw a hot bath for me and I had to sit in it for an hour to thaw my extremities until we were sure I hadn’t gotten frostbite. When I got to class on Monday, my clothes were lying in a pile on my desk. I heard snickering around me. The others hid their faces behind their books. I sat down and folded the clothes and put them under my desk and carried on as usual.
That was just one incident among many.
I can’t be bothered with them, of course. Not then, not ever. Reason does not permit me to do so. Besides, Professor Gaertner noticed the abuse, and took pains to protect me. After all, his wife, Sofia, was also a professor and radio physicist, famous in Germany before they left the country. He was not threatened by a learned woman. Especially one learned in the sciences. I was, and remain, glad of their patronage.
And though I am ashamed to say it, I take some pleasure in considering how those young men are now in the trenches in the European theater. Speaking for myself, I highly recommend the Pacific theater. It is peaceful and calm. There is no one to bother me, except the little pigs, and I rather like them.
I did one full lap around the atoll yesterday. Not to please the Navy, but to please myself. It takes about ten minutes. That’s an estimate—since my watch broke, I’ve been guessing at intervals. I’ve been estimating hours, too, like my noontime radio date with base. I can tell it’s noon when the short shadow of the palm tree outside my shelter crosses over a certain arrangement of bleached kelp at its foot. Then I get on the radio and call them.
I haven’t told them my watch is broken.
I haven’t told them much, in fact. Nothing about my Traumphysik, obviously. They wouldn’t understand, or they would find it an occasion to mock me amongst themselves, and I’m not in a mood to provide them that pleasure.
I’m still so intrigued by the result of my first Galilean experiment. It’s such an unexpected result that the objects fell at an incline, in opposite directions. This suggests multiple centers of gravitational pull. The feather is attracted to one center of mass, whereas the watch is attracted to another. They obey their own masters as if made of different substances. It’s extraordinary.
It’s clear that more data are needed.
In the meantime, I’ve progressed to another experiment. In keeping with Galileo’s findings, I decided to test the behavior of a pendulum in my Traumphysik. I tied a length of string through a pendant and hung it on a nail that protrudes from one of the beams of my shelter. In tying the pendant, I recalled its provenance. In my junior year at MIT, I was courted by a young man named Louis. He looked sharp in class, in his day-to-day wear, especially a maroon wool sweater. I had asked around, and been told he was dating a girl at Wellesley—but then he asked me to be his date to a Harvard mixer, so I assumed that that business was done with.
I bought a new necklace for the occasion at a jeweler’s in Beacon Hill—this very pendant, a cream-and-caramel cameo I thought very pretty. Anyway, I shouldn’t linger; this story has a predictable ending. I waited to be picked up at my dormitory for two hours, listening to radio dramas with the house matron. Finally I left the dormitory by myself and hailed a taxi and arrived at the mixer, where I spotted Louis in a corner, surrounded by our classmates and accompanied by a pretty blonde I could only assume was the aforementioned Wellesley girl. I exited quickly, the same way I’d come in. I didn’t want to provide the denouement. It was never mentioned again, by me or by Louis, who avoided me thereafter.
But I kept the necklace. I liked it still. Apparently enough to bring it with me, here, to this atoll. I’d forgotten I had packed it at the last minute, so when I unpacked on my first day, I was pleasantly surprised to find it in my suitcase. And now I can use it for experiments.
In Traumphysik, I sat at the edge of my mat, held the pendant in between my thumb and forefinger, drew it up to 0 degrees, and let it go. A remarkable thing happened. It swung to 270 degrees—the nadir of a normal arc—but then swung right back up to 0 degrees. Its arc was confined to the fourth quadrant. I tested it again. This time I drew the pendant to 90 degrees, straight up. I let go. It swung to the left, then stopped at 180 degrees. And swung back up to 90 degrees. Its arc was confined to the second quadrant, in defiance of any expected behavior. Absolutely fascinating.
I have to conclude that, again, there are forces of gravity in Traumphysik that differ from those in the waking world. Multiple centers, multiple pulls. It is not the earth. It is not the moon. Gravity is fungible.
I repeated each experiment twice, with the same initial conditions, and obtained the same results, to finish the night’s work. Then I let myself sleep.
I took another walk around the atoll today. I spotted a new species of lizard sunning by a tide pool, and also a beached jellyfish with a dark blue heart. More significantly, though, I got the distinct sense that circumambulating the atoll takes a shorter time than it used to. I have no good way to test this, given that a full walk already takes such a short amount of time, and my watch is broken, and I can’t rely on my own heartbeat, obviously, since its rate is inconstant during exercise.
So instead of measuring time, I will measure space. I placed a conch shell on a spot on the sand at the lip of high tide, in a straight line with my shelter. I will re-measure in one week.
I checked on the conch shell. It was gone, already, overnight. There was no trace of it.
My goodness. How does your razor cut, Occam? I submit four possibilities, and address them in turn:
- I was careless and misplaced the conch.
Re: My capacity for mistakes is very low. At MIT, I had a reputation for rigorous, consistent, excellent work (though my fellow students called it “perfectionism”). This is not a boast. This is an empirical observation.
- I miscalculated high tide.
Re: Unlikely, given that I’ve been keeping assiduous records thereof.
- The conch was displaced by another animal or group of animals.
Re: The largest fauna on this atoll is the native pig, mild-mannered and no bigger than my hand. To test its strength, I found another conch and harnessed it by twine to a little pig I caught. It could barely move. This does not preclude the possibility that a group of pigs moved the conch, but according to the behavior I’ve observed so far, they do not seem capable of purposeful assembly or group tasks.
- The atoll is shrinking.
Re: Vastly unlikely. Base has not informed me about any rises in sea level. And I know of nothing that would cause a change in sea level on such a short timescale—only a tsunami, which would temporarily lower the sea level, not raise it. And the atoll sits atop a coral reef. I’ve not known coral reefs to sink, unless the calcite beneath is unstable. The calcite could be unstable because the ocean’s pH is dropping. But again: None of this could occur on the timescale I’m witnessing, not by any natural phenomenon of which I’m aware.
Further data are needed. I’m running another test. This time, I found a long, slim length of driftwood—half as tall as I am—and hammered it deep into the sand, three-quarters of its length in. I’ll check on it every day.
Now the driftwood post is also gone.
What could this mean? I’m certainly alone on the island, and the pigs definitely could not have moved such an object.
I’m strangely unalarmed. But then again, this is a logical reaction, as I’m in no immediate danger. If I ever do feel endangered, I can get on the radio. I’d explain my discoveries to the Navy scientists, though no doubt they’d come up with their own theory based on their assumptions about people who own uteri.
Besides, my curiosity grows. I want to stay and continue my work. I’ve formulated a new goal: to devise a unified theory of my Traumphysik. The scope of my theory is limited to what I can achieve in my lucid dreaming, of course. But I’m getting better every night. Last night I did not conduct an experiment, per se, but achieved a feat of observation: I succeeded in leaving my shelter entirely and standing on the beach. The stars were bright violet sparks, and the sky was deep chocolate brown. The ocean was markedly different, too—pearly and viscous. In waking life, this landscape might appear choked and polluted; as it was, I felt as if this palette were the natural and normal one.
Also, in the dream, I found the same conch shell on the beach. It was eerie. I’d selected the conch shell as a marker in waking life. And here it was, with a characteristic chip in the outer lip. Its appearance in my dream suggests Traumphysik at work. Perhaps there are wormholes in my personal universe.
There is so much more to learn.
Last night, in my dream, again I practiced walking out onto the beach. I found I could sit down on the sand, which was sparkly and transparent, as if made from ground and tumbled glass. The sand was so clear I could even look down and perceive a few inches of depth, deeper than which light was too refracted to penetrate.
When I looked up again, a great silver pig was standing on the shore in front of me. It must have just emerged from the surf—iridescent rivulets were oozing down its flanks. It was much bigger than the island’s native pigs. It was the size of a lion. It waddled towards me, veered to my left, turned around, and sat back on its haunches. I turned to it and smiled, to signal welcome and no harm intended. It did not respond. Then I heard a deep gurgling sound from within its gullet, and the pig splayed its legs and belched, and there was the driftwood post lying on the sand in a pool of luminescent slime. Then it got to its feet and waddled back into the surf, its curly tail wagging left and right with the alternating pistons of its haunches.
I picked up the driftwood post, feeling a slight burn on my palms (Traum-bile?), and washed it in the surf. Then I did the most logical thing and planted the post in the same spot I’d planted it in waking life. We’ll see whether the island is also shrinking in Traumphysik.
The re-hammered post was nowhere to be found in waking life. But in my dream last night, I checked on it and found it—well above the furthermost reach of the surf. This suggests that, while the real atoll is decreasing in size, the dream atoll is increasing in size. Knowing how fluid gravity is in Traumphysik, I can’t make definitive conclusions. But it’s a thrilling result. Lucifer is rising.
On the radio today, just to refine my working hypotheses, I swallowed my pride and asked base whether there were any unusual events in my locality. They asked what I meant by unusual events. I asked whether there had been any sudden drops in oceanic pH. I was told that there was a war going on and they didn’t have time to measure acid in the ocean and as long as ships could still float and shoot at Japs, the Navy was happy.
So unfortunately I don’t have those data. I was again told, however, that the war was going well. I asked for details. I was told that that was classified information.
Then I was given instructions for another flyover. Tonight, at midnight, an essential supply convoy would approach my atoll and look for my signal light as a landmark to turn north. The signal light must be on. I must watch for their Morse code, giving their call sign. I must signal back in Morse code, giving my own. The supplies the convoy carries are crucial to a certain planned strike, which itself is crucial to our long-term strategy in the Pacific, and did I understand? Yes, I understood. I had never failed them before. I was to report in as soon as the exchange had been achieved.
At sunset I sat on the beach and watched the surf. I thought about how Galileo had hypothesized that tides were caused by the oceans “sloshing” in their basins as the earth turned, and how he dismissed Kepler’s proposal that the tides were instead caused by the gravitational pull of the moon. Kepler turned out to be right, of course. There are ten thousand million heavenly bodies, all with their own inexorable pulls.
On my last morning, there was a spectacular sunrise.
I sat on the beach, having stayed awake all night. The colors of Eos were lilac and mandarin. They called to mind the beach of my Traumphysik—the violet stars, especially. I hope to visit there again, and linger longer.
The pigs congregated near me, rolling on their backs and taking their little sand-baths. And the radio lay in pieces beside me. I’d always wanted to take that radio apart, and see what kind it was. I dismantled it well before midnight. I’d also dismantled the generator that powers the signal light. Then I’d sat on the beach with my toes in the sand and watched the convoy fly over. They had done well, navigating this far, but without my signal they would fly straight into Japanese waters. I’d watched them fly overhead and thought I could imagine their confusion, their consternation. Undone, and with so little effort on my part.
I breakfasted on coconut and waited. At last, I heard a distant buzz, and then a seaplane appeared as a speck in the sky. I got to my feet and watched it land, shading my eyes with my hand. The seaplane landed in the shallows, sending up a spray. A boat was unlashed from the underbelly of the plane and dropped to the water. Two figures climbed out of the plane and let themselves down.
The boat came nearer and I began to make out their faces. It was a man and a woman. They were both smiling. Lucy! Gut gemacht—wirklich ausgezeichnet! the man called out.
It was my dear friends, the Gaertners.
Meine lieben Freunde! Willkommen und Guten Morgen! I called back.
“Alexandria” was first published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, January/February 2017. Photo by author: young wheat at Melleray.
What does a Lighthouse mean, when it is not by the sea?
—Phan Thj Khiem, Studies in Suffering
(University of Kansas Press, 2075)
Beth woke at the coldest hour, her mind ringing from a dream.
She lay with her head on her pillow, looking up at the ceiling, mottled with water stains the color of tea. She and Keiji had named them all—the many seas of their intimate geography.
She pushed back the blankets, eased her thick legs over the side of the bed, and pressed her fists into the mattress to stand up. On the rocking chair by the vanity, she found her dressing gown—made of flannel, patterned with crocuses—and tied it over her pajamas.
Outside, the moon shone bright as the sun, and the wind stung like ice water. But Beth was a native daughter. She liked the cold. She removed one slipper, then the other, and curled her feet into Kansas dirt. Globes of soil burst between her toes.
Later that morning, Beth made a breakfast of toast and eggs and looked through her mail. There was some paperwork from her estate lawyer. There was a newsletter
from the Farmworkers’ Union advertising summer jobs, including at her own Miyake Farms. There was a card from Nell Greer, inviting her to another “home-cooked dinner” at their house.
This meant the Greers were angling for her land again. They didn’t bother to hide it much. The invitation was even printed on Greer Contractors company stationery. Beth tossed it aside with more force than she meant to, and its inertia made the whole pile swivel, and all of the letters ended up on the floor.
Beth stared at them.
The clock on the wall ticked in the silence.
She got up, carried her dish and cup over to the sink, washed each, dried each, and put each of them away.
She looked out the window. The acres of farmland receded to the horizon, farther than her eyes could see, stretching away like a rubber band that never got to snap.
The night before Keiji died, they did their evening routine, like it was any other evening.
They shared a study in the back of the house. In it was a star projector, three globes, and two overstuffed armchairs. They were travelers, though of the domestic sort. After their terrible honeymoon, they’d never left Kansas again.
But Keiji had become restless. That night, Beth was surprised to find him bent over a book of classical archaeology. He straightened up and blinked in greeting, and Beth could see the page: an artist’s rendering of the Lighthouse of Alexandria.
Oh, that old thing, she said.
You remember? he said.
I remember that it wasn’t there, she said.
Keiji nodded and looked down at the drawing again. Beth took a seat across from him, and they sat in silence. She knew they were both remembering themselves as teenagers in Egypt. The church folk had not looked kindly on it. First she marries a Jap, now she’s going to Arabia on honeymoon?
Jokes abounded. But it wasn’t funny. Nothing was funny when they got there and realized that, contrary to their foolish assumption, the Lighthouse no longer existed.
How long has it been gone? Keiji asked a young British soldier.
About seven hundred years, he said.
Beth could still remember the look on that young man’s face. Hilarity, incredulity, and pity. They must learn such things in school in England. But Beth and Keiji had never even thought to check whether the Lighthouse was still standing. They’d planned to climb to the top, look out across the sea, and imagine the Roman warships arriving, or the Chinese junk traders, or the great Ottoman fleet.
Beth and Keiji had been private, before. But when they returned from their honeymoon, they were even more so. Every night during fifty years of marriage, they held their study sessions, sometimes in silence and sometimes in conversation. They quizzed each other on dates and names and geography. They pored over books of ancient sculpture and marveled at all the things in the world that had been lost. They gifted each other with talk and quiet.
And so it was, on their last night together. Keiji set the archaeology book on the table, and they both looked at the drawing of the Lighthouse, in silence.
When I first laid eyes on the Lighthouse, it was as if a mallet had dropped vertically from my head to my toes, and I stood there, ringing. The Lighthouse was both Rooted and Reaching, the midpoint of all things. When I entered the courtyard, I felt I knew its contours and colonnades as if by memory—as if I had played there as a child and forgotten till now.
—Francis Mbachu, Midwestern Dreaming
(Sankofa Inc., 2191)
Nell and Nathan Greer, co-owners of Greer Contractors, sat across the kitchen table.
“Beth, we’re worried about you,” said Nell, her voice low and soft, like a wheedling loon.
“How’s that?” said Beth, not looking their way.
“It’s been about, oh, eighteen months since Kay passed on,” said Nathan.
Keiji, Beth corrected in her mind. His name was Keiji.
“You have no children and your brothers have also
passed on. Beth, you’re sixty-nine years old. And here you are, sitting alone on five hundred acres. What are you going to do with it all?”
Beth held her coffee cup close and leveled her eyes at Nathan. “You folks sure are concerned,” she said.
The rebuke swung in the air like a scythe. Beth waited for it to slow, relishing the silence.
At last, she said, “I’m going to build.”
Nathan looked at Nell in alarm. “You’re going to build? Build what?”
Finally, Nathan said, “You’re not the joking type.”
“I don’t suppose you’ve lost your mind.”
“Beth, the nearest coastline is a thousand miles away.”
“I know that.”
Nathan went quiet. Outside the window on a branch, a raven cawed, and the sound curdled in the cold.
Nell asked, “Well, what do you want to build it for?”
Beth knew, but she didn’t want to tell them, so instead she said, “Couldn’t quite say.” She put down her coffee cup and used her hands to draw in the air. “But I can tell you it’s limestone, with a room at the top, faced in granite. And there’s a pretty good-sized courtyard, walled in. There’s a long ramp that leads up to a doorway. Then there are four tiers, like a wedding cake. First there’s a square tier at the bottom, and then an eight-sided tier rising up out of that, and then one circular tier, then another, more narrow, and . . . oh, a statue at the top.” She flapped her hand, as if to dismiss the sentimentality.
“What’s the statue?”
“Is that Indian?”
“He’s the Greek god of the sea.”
Nell and Nathan exchanged looks. They were trying to discern whether Beth was senile.
“Is this some kind of temple?”
“I told you. It’s a lighthouse.”
“And you want the body of it faced in limestone?”
“No, I want it pure limestone.”
“Pure limestone? How high is this lighthouse?”
She’d considered this as well. “Higher than the house.”
“So what, thirty feet?”
“Make it fifty. Got to top the weather vane.”
Nathan guffawed. “And granite facing for the top room, which would have to come from out of state. Beth, that could cost you your land and everything on it.”
She held up her coffee mug as if to toast him. “You almost figured it out.”
He sat back in his chair, stunned.
But Nell had caught on. “If we put in the order at the quarry by spring, we can get construction started,” she said, as if waking from a dream.
Nathan leaned forward, elbows on the table. “Now just hold on, the both of you,” he said. “Beth, you’re saying you want to sell all your land?”
“All but what this house is built on. And the lighthouse.”
“Five hundred acres?”
“Yes. To you. And then you’ll build for me.”
“But think this through, now. You want to forgo any concrete? Pure limestone and granite? You’d be willing to sell the lake and the duck pond, too? And the dairy? The greenhouse and the garden? Even the vineyard?”
Each place he named felt like a bolt to the chest, but all she said was, “Yes.”
Nathan turned to his wife, who pursed her lips at him as if to say, Do you understand now?
And he did. Now he understood the scope of the exchange and how much he was going to make. He started murmuring to Nell, who started taking notes. “We’ll need to get it all appraised, so call Jane. I guess we have to find some kind of artist to make that statue. And we’d better call Pete Stocker over in Kansas City, too, because we can’t contract everything. He’ll know people in the mirror business, if you want a proper lighthouse—Beth, what do you want to put up there? A big ol’ lens?”
But Beth had stopped listening. She was staring out the window, off into the cornfields, where in the summer, it was so easy to disappear.
On their wedding night, Keiji wrote her a poem.
Keiji, she said, This is prettier than anything I’ve ever read. Can I show it to Dad?
No, he said, looking heartbroken.
Beth knew she’d said something very wrong, but didn’t know what.
He took her hand in his. Forgive me, he said. I haven’t explained. These poems are only for you. I ask that you never share them.
Beth did not understand, but she nodded, a young bride in blind faith.
Keiji pushed her hand over her heart and pressed it there. Please promise me, he said. I want you to read this poem and commit it here.
And then, he said, please burn it.
The first stones arrived in February.
Beth walked out onto the porch with her cup of coffee, in her crocus dressing gown, to watch the trucks drive up. Slabs of white limestone were strapped across the flatbeds.
Right behind them were two four-by-fours, full of workers who hopped out of the cabs in sweatshirts and jeans and called to each other in English and Spanish. Another vehicle followed, this one shaped like a hundred-foot giraffe with the crane as its neck and a tiny pulley-head. New vehicles kept arriving, one after the other. A mechanical menagerie. It was beginning.
Overwhelmed, Beth took a breath and went back into the house to change her clothes so she could meet the workers properly.
As she moved through the house, she murmured a poem of Keiji’s to herself.
It was the one from their fifth anniversary. A tense night. She’d cooked dinner for the whole family, including her three older brothers, who were always a little wary of Keiji. Roger, her oldest brother, pulled her aside in the kitchen.
Are you happy with him? he said. Because if you’re not, we’ll take care of you.
Beth folded her arms. What makes you think I’m not happy with him?
Well, hell, it can’t be easy living with a person from a whole other country. And one that has it in for Americans.
Beth gave him a look that made him take a step back.
Roger held up his hand. All right, I know what you’re about to say. I’ll shut up. But let me just tell you: it looks odd. He never thanks you. He never appreciates you. He never even seems to acknowledge you. I don’t know if this is a custom of his people or what, but it sure feels strange for my baby sister to be treated like she’s not there.
Beth stared at him. What he was saying might make sense—from outside the marriage. But how could she tell him how much Keiji adored her? How passionate he was? How extraordinary his love poems were—twelve of them, at last count, and all faithfully committed to memory? But she was forbidden to tell anyone about them.
That night, Keiji gave her a new poem with the usual command to memorize and then burn it.
Why? she said.
Keiji looked at her in surprise. Why what?
Why do we have to hide this? Everyone thinks we don’t love each other. That you’re just a mute and I’m just a serving maid. If I show this to people, they wouldn’t think that.
Keiji narrowed his eyes at her, looking very disappointed. Why do you care what others think?
Beth stared down at the poem. After a while, she said, I just don’t know that love has to be secret to be valuable.
It was May. The ground had softened in spring rains. At the construction site, wildflowers popped up in the soil.
Beth stood at the top of the new ramp with her fists on her hips. She looked ahead, off the edge, into the empty air where the lighthouse itself would stand. Down on the ground, she could see the Greers in matching hard hats. They were bent over a blueprint. Nell was pointing and gesturing. Nathan was nodding.
Beth turned toward her house. It was time for lunch. She could tell because the picnickers were back. There were families on quilts spread out, watching and chewing, and teenagers on truck hoods. Beth had resigned herself to it. She’d figured the construction was bound to attract the curious and the stupid alike.
As Beth approached the house, she saw a small, neat figure in a rocking chair on the porch. She drew closer. It was Dr. Anselm.
Beth sighed in her mind but made no other sign. Dr. Anselm was an old friend, and fragile, now.
“Afternoon, good Doctor,” she said, pulling off a canvas glove to shake his hand.
Dr. Anselm steadied himself up from the chair and shuffled forward to take her hand. “Bethany Handel!” he said. “How are you doing?”
“It’s Beth Miyake, Doc.” She shook his hand, then took his arm to support him.
“Well.” His blue eyes focused on something in the distance. “It’s always been Bethany Handel to me.”
Beth nodded. This exchange was well-worn. When they were young, Mike Anselm had gone sweet on her for awhile. Lovestruck looks exchanged at church, notes carried back and forth, and so on. But the romance blew away as soon as it had blown in. He married Georgia Presley, and then of course Beth got engaged to the field hand’s son Keiji, and all hell broke loose for about a year. Old news.
Now both of them were old news, too. Dr. Anselm was stooped and skinny. Beth was taller by several inches, and commanded the space around her with her sloping river-shelf of bosom, her body wide and strong as a pillar.
“I was just about to have lunch, Doc,” she said. “Care to join me?”
“Oh!” He looked surprised, as if he hadn’t planned to come around lunchtime for just that reason. “I certainly will, Bethany. I haven’t eaten anything since my morning fruit, which these days is a banana, which I think is good for me . . .”
He talked on as Beth led him into the kitchen. With her help, he pulled out a chair and sat down in it, more by way of falling than sitting. Beth set out bowls of warm potato soup, tomato sandwiches, and cups of milk. She settled across from him and picked up her spoon.
But Dr. Anselm did not pick up his spoon.
Beth, noticing, lowered her own spoon and waited for him to speak.
“I’m concerned about you, Bethany,” he said in a loud voice, as if volume counted as courage.
Beth nodded, but broke eye contact and sipped her soup. “What are you concerned about?”
Dr. Anselm made a noise of exasperation. He was looking beyond the porch, to the sun-bright fields outside. “About your health!” he said. “I don’t know how much you know, about people in the town talking—” he waved his fingers as if to mimic loose lips “—but they all think you’re crazy. And I said to them, you know, I’ve known this gal for sixty-odd years now and she’s no dummy. She knew what she was doing when she married Kay—everyone thought it was just the craziest thing to do, and now look at all the young kids doing it, marrying every which color, ten ways to Sunday. And she and Kay knew what they were doing when they inherited Art Handel’s land. They took it, they bought the Stiptik farm, they added it on, they dug a pond and planted a garden and built up the dairy, and they became worth a whole heck of a lot more than anyone else in this town.”
Beth nodded. She knew he’d stood up for her, and paid for it.
Dr. Anselm pressed on. “So I would just like to come out here and prove myself right, you know,” he said, making a show of getting back to his sandwich. He took off the top slice of bread and rearranged the tomatoes and put it back again.
Beth sat back in her chair. “Thanks for coming, Doc,” she said as Dr. Anselm finally brought the sandwich to his mouth. “I appreciate it. I know a lot of people don’t understand what I’m doing.”
Dr. Anselm had a mouthful and was now chewing, his eyes bright and focused on her. There was affection in his gaze. Beth saw it, recognized it, and put it away quickly, a gift she was embarrassed to receive.
“I just had this dream—” She stopped, and restarted. “This idea, from way back . . .” She stopped again. There were no words in her mind to follow that. The sudden generosity of heart was now gone without a trace. She didn’t want to tell Dr. Anselm about her studies with Keiji, about the poems he’d written for her, about all of the evenings of quiet, happy repose, balancing books on their knees, engaged in sparse conversation. The counties of Kansas, the islands of Japan. Their country of two.
Dr. Anselm reached across the table and placed a spotted hand on hers. “You must miss him,” he said.
Beth’s mind went blank. She stared at nothing.
“God knows,” he continued, leaning in, “I miss Georgie still, every day, and that’s been what—twenty years? And you just lost him not even two years ago.”
Beth was aware that her breathing was shorter, more shallow, like an animal in captivity.
“Bethany . . . ?”
Her vision began to go dark. Black specks danced around the periphery, closing in. Thousands of little black runners, thousands of little black arms pumping . . .
Beth coughed, and blinked, to recenter herself. She withdrew her hand and sat up in her chair. “Yep, well.” The words hung in the air, transparent, meaningless. She focused on her soup.
Beth threw down her spoon so hard that it bounced and knocked over her cup. “Why do you want to know?”
Dr. Anselm stared at her. He didn’t answer. Milk dripped onto the floor.
After a few seconds, Beth got a washcloth, sopped up the mess, and dropped it into the sink. She rejoined him at the table and picked up her spoon. He picked up his sandwich. They ate in silence.
The area’s number-one attraction is, of course, the eccentric Lighthouse. The top tier was sealed off by the first major earthquake but, still, a visit is mandatory, more so because it may be underwater soon. You can climb to the top of the stairs and see the encroaching sea.
—A. MacAvoy, Old Kansas Historical Society, 2340
September was dwindling. The embers of summer were fading to grey.
Beth stood at her kitchen window in her dressing gown. The lighthouse was rising. A tower of stone. Shaped like a wedding cake. Construction workers circled its base. Every morning, she found herself gazing at it, like she was trying to stretch her mind around it, to let it in, to let it push out other things.
Suddenly her view was obscured by a woman on the porch: blonde bob, business suit. Sally Pickett from the Farmers’ Bank.
Beth went to the door and pulled it open. “Hello there.”
Sally jerked to one side as a way of greeting. Her eyes were bright green from colored contact lenses. “Good afternoon, Mrs. Miyake, how are you?”
“I’m doing all right,” Beth said. She looked into Sally’s lizard eyes. “Caught me a bit early, though. I’ll put on some coffee and find some decent clothes.”
“Oh, sure, Mrs. Miyake, take your time, I don’t mind at all, you just do . . . what you . . . need.” Sally’s words spilled out. As usual, Beth thought, she was ill-suited to any unscripted situation.
When Beth came down the stairs again, she saw Sally sitting at the kitchen table with coffee, shuffling through papers mindlessly, like a stuck machine. But as soon as Beth appeared, she was all sunshine again.
“Quite a . . .” Sally gestured out in the direction of the lighthouse. “What a lot of . . .” She faltered, as Beth did not meet her eyes. Beth saw her computing that pleasantries would do no good here. So instead she launched into her field script.
“Mrs. Miyake, you probably know why I am here. Almost all of your land and assets, including the dairy, have been transferred to Greer Contractors in exchange for their work on your . . . your project, but they’ve spoken with me, and unfortunately—”
“They want to take more.”
Sally looked uncomfortable. “They don’t want to take more, Mrs. Miyake, but the financial reality of the situation has become clear. The cost of this project is more than we projected when we first met with you. And as your case manager, I need to be honest with you.”
Beth raised her eyebrows. “Well, Sally, give me the worst. Am I going to lose my house?”
Sally shuffled papers and fumbled with words. “Well… ah, if we do a few things here and there, and if you give up on the granite facing, which seems to be a big—”
“Am I going to lose my house?”
Sally stopped, both hands suspended in midair, clutching papers. She rested them on the table before she spoke.
“Mmm.” Beth continued to gaze toward the lighthouse, as if considering. Then she got up to rinse dishes in the sink.
“Mrs. Miyake? We do need to talk about this.” Beth heard papers flapping. “I have the forms right here—you can sign them if you want to and get it over with, but if you want to talk about it first, that’s what I’m here for.”
Beth turned off the faucet, wiped her hands on a dish towel, and sat down. “Show me where to sign,” she said.
Sally spread her arms in exasperation. But Beth did not move. So Sally pointed to a line at the bottom of a long form. “Here. But Mrs. Miyake . . .”
“Where will you go?”
Beth signed the paper, straightened up, and then flicked the end of the pen toward the lighthouse.
“There?” asked Sally, faintly.
“You got it, kiddo.”
Beth rose and went into the study and closed the door, leaving Sally in the kitchen, alone.
Beth sat down in the study. Her brain felt like wobbling mercury, in danger of spilling.
She traced the old sketch of the Lighthouse of Alexandria, lying open and untouched on the table for two years, now.
In her mind, Keiji sat across from her, the book balanced on his legs.
Alexandria, he said. Who built it?
Alexander founded it, but after he died, Ptolemy came back and finished it and built the Lighthouse.
Keiji nodded. Why there?
Because Alexander loved the place. He would have wanted to be buried there. Ptolemy loved Alexander, so he commissioned a monument to him, to show his love.
Keiji sat back in his chair, looking out toward the window. I wonder, he said.
You wonder what?
What a lighthouse is for.
It shows you where the danger is. It’s to warn away oncoming ships so they don’t wreck themselves on the rocks.
But it is also there to light the way, to guide you in. To show you the way to safety.
Hmm. Beth considered. I guess it depends on the sailor.
Keiji drew a line, from his heart, forward into empty space. Yes—the meaning of the signal depends on the receiver. Should I go away, or come closer? Will I dash myself on the rocks, or find safe harbor?
Beth let his words sink in.
Finally she dipped into a sagging pocket of her dressing gown and drew out a sheet of paper. Got this one memorized, she said.
Keiji stood and, from an upper shelf, pulled down a bronze urn. The bowl of it was blackened. They pushed the poem down into it. Beth reached across the desk and picked up a blue lacquered lighter that they used only for this purpose. She lit the paper, then watched as it became like a live thing, curling in the oncoming surf of the fire, and writhing in its wake.
Keiji, she said.
He looked up at her. Her bright-eyed husband.
Bethany, he said, inviting her to speak.
If you ever die, before me, she said, looking down into the bronze bowl. She couldn’t finish.
You’re a strong one, said Keiji. Strong as earth.
He reached out and gripped her arm, humming, squeezing in one place and then another, as if to transfer strength to her.
Strong as water. My wife.
Strong as water, my wife—
Beth came back to the present.
That was the first line of the last poem he had ever written for her, which lay curled and unburned in the bronze urn. She did not want to burn it, even though she knew Keiji would have wanted her to if he were alive.
But he was dead.
Tumbled blocks of stone upon the
bed, under tides the river-
bed, mother river cover
over, close the lids of learn’ed
dead, done and lost to all
—Ayesha Rawlings, “Midwest”
(Tesseract: A Journal of New Poetry, January 2415)
The first snowstorm of the year was settling in.
Beth stopped at the foot of the ramp and tipped her head back, looking up to the top of the lighthouse, straining
her eyes, but she couldn’t see the statue of Poseidon. Only
the faint butter glow of her own room.
She ascended the ramp, carrying bagfuls of supplies. The wind picked up and rose to a scream, pushing her body to the edge, but she struggled forward. Once she was through the doorway, everything became quiet, as if she’d flipped a switch. She turned around to look behind her. The snow was blowing sideways, and in the distance, the house lay silent, its windows now dark, taped, and ready for demolition. It was not hers anymore.
She got a better grip on her bags and walked forward.
White candles burned inside hurricane lamps, set in alcoves in the wall, lighting the way ahead. Her footsteps were loud in the vaulted space. Every echo took a beat to return. As she passed each candle, she bent and blew it out. Darkness followed her.
Her apartment was in the top tier of the tower. From outside, the tier appeared circular; but the room inside was shaped like an octagon and faced with rose-colored granite, with round windows at every point of the compass. There was a narrow bed with a single pillow, and a stack of woolen blankets at its foot. A composting toilet, just off the stairwell. A gas range with a cast-iron pan on the burner. Cupboards full of food. An oak desk, and surrounding it, her globes, maps, and books. Next to it were half-built bookshelves, with lumber and tools nearby.
The place was good. Her new home. Her last home.
Beth set down her bags and unpacked. The last thing she drew out was a brown parcel that she’d picked up from the engraver’s shop, by special order. She sat down at her desk, cut away the strings, sliced open the edges, opened the flaps, and drew close her wastebasket to hold all the shipping fluff. Once she’d cleared enough away, the tools emerged one by one.
She laid them out on her desk as if setting the table for a Thanksgiving meal, and then, folding her hands as if saying grace, she closed her eyes and recited every poem she had memorized in fifty years of marriage.
When she opened her eyes again, the snow was falling even harder outside her windows, blowing first one way then the other in erratic pulses. But Beth was warm and dry. She put on some water for instant coffee, sat down again, and eyed the narrow iron stairway across the room, which led up to a trapdoor in the ceiling. The great hearth—the light of the Lighthouse—was in the room above.
Tomorrow her work on the walls would begin. But tonight she would set the fire above, and keep her first watch—for what would go away to sea, and what would come in to harbor.
The first of the ruins was lifted at 7:44am, from a depth of twenty feet. Up it came, a monstrous, rosy slab of granite, like a goddess inert, patient with our grappling ropes. But when we laid it down on the deck, one of the sailors cried out and pointed, and a crowd came running to see. There were words in the stone.
—T. Y. Falion, The Recovery (2702)